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Document 52024SC0074

COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENT Accompanying the documents Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a blueprint for a European degree Proposal for a Council recommendation on a European quality assurance and recognition system in higher education and Proposal for a Council recommendation on attractive and sustainable careers in higher education

SWD/2024/74 final

Brussels, 27.3.2024

SWD(2024) 74 final

COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENT

Accompanying the documents

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a blueprint for a European degree


Proposal for a Council recommendation on a European quality assurance and recognition system in higher education

and

Proposal for a Council recommendation on attractive and sustainable careers in higher education

{COM(2024) 144 final}


Introduction    

Chapter 1: A European degree - a key element to achieve the European Education Area and to boost Europe’s competitiveness and attractiveness    

1.1.    The importance of transnational cooperation in higher education    

1.2.    The Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area    

1.3.    The European Education Area    

1.4.    Joint transnational programmes in Europe    

1.5.    The need to act    

1.6.    Building bridges for effective European cooperation in higher education    

Chapter 2: A European degree - key parameters and its added value    

2.1    Benefits and added value of a European degree    

2.2    Suitability of the criteria of a European degree and stakeholders’ perspectives    

2.2.1    European policy experimentation in higher education under the Erasmus+ programme    …………………………………………………………………………………..

2.2.2    Proposed criteria for the European degree to be tested by Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects    

2.2.3    Revised list of criteria for a European degree    

2.2.4    Award process and actors    

2.2.5    A possible European legal status for alliances of higher education institutions    

2.2.6    The findings of the policy experimentation projects funded under the Erasmus+ programme and the study on a legal status of alliances    

Chapter 3: Breaking down barriers for a European degree – the obstacles to overcome    

3.1    Challenges related to Accreditation and quality assurance    

3.2    Challenges related to programme and curricula structure and diploma templates    

3.3    Challenges related to governance structure    

3.4    Challenges related to student enrolment and admission    

3.5    Types of overarching solutions to overcome the barriers    

Chapter 4: A fit-for-purpose European quality assurance system    

4.1    Quality assurance in higher education    

4.1.1    The need for agile quality assurance frameworks    

4.1.2    The importance of quality assurance for joint programmes    

4.2    Transnational cooperation in quality assurance    

4.2.1    Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area    

4.2.2    European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes    

4.2.3    European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education    

4.2.4    European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education    

4.2.5    The E4 Group    

4.3    Important developments at EU level    

4.4    Challenges to quality assurance    

4.4.1    Uneven implementation of the ESG    

4.4.2    Uneven Implementation of the European Approach    

4.4.3    Need for better links between quality assurance and recognition    

4.4.4    Remaining Obstacles to European-level quality assurance    

Chapter 5: European framework for flexible and attractive academic careers    

5.1.    Background    

5.2.    The diversity of European higher education    

5.3    Challenges and factors influencing academic careers    

5.3.1    Engagement in deep transnational cooperation    

5.3.2    Innovative, effective, and attractive teaching    

5.3.3    Attractive working conditions and social protection    

Chapter 6: Conclusions - the path towards the European degree    

6.1 A European degree    

6.2 A fit-for-purpose European quality assurance system    

6.3 European framework for flexible and attractive academic careers    

6.4 General conclusions    

ANNEX I: Synopsis of stakeholder consultations    

ANNEX II: Revised list of criteria for a European degree    

ANNEX III: List of barriers to the delivery of joint programmes and joint degrees identified by experts in the context of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects on a joint European degree label    

ANNEX IV: Glossary of Terms    



Introduction

In the letter of intent accompanying the 2023 State of the European Union address, President von der Leyen highlighted a blueprint for a European degree as a key priority for 2024, and this is reflected in the 2024 Commission Work Programme 1 in the form of a package with three concrete deliverables:

·Commission Communication on a blueprint towards a European degree: joint programmes bring significant value to students, higher education institutions, employers, and society. However, higher education institutions face significant obstacles in designing and delivering joint educational offers, often due to incompatible or restrictive national and regional rules. The Communication presents the added value of introducing a framework for a European degree, showing that it can be a catalyst for the European Education Area. The proposal outlines the blueprint of the European degree and presents a possible pathway towards its implementation.

·Proposal for a Council Recommendation on a European quality assurance and recognition system: transnational cooperation requires trust and agile procedures. Current quality assurance and recognition procedures remain lengthy and cumbersome and are poorly fit for transnational joint programmes. This proposal seeks to further support the alignment, compatibility, and mainstreaming of European and Bologna tools such as the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes, and to go beyond by recommending that Member States, if conditions are met, enable higher education institutions to self-accredit their joint education provisions, and to evaluate alliances of higher education institutions externally at cross-institutional level, across all their joint activities, covering all their joint programmes.

·Proposal for a Council Recommendation on attractive and sustainable careers in higher education: ensuring that academic staff benefit from equitable, inclusive, and rewarding careers is a precondition for deeper transnational cooperation. The proposal aims to support national higher education systems in valorising and rewarding the diversity of the work their academic staff do beyond research, including developing joint programmes, mobility opportunities, and innovative learning and teaching. It invites Member States to step up their actions to promote attractive working conditions, academic freedom, gender diversity and well-being for higher education academic staff.

Beyond the European symbolic value, a European degree would demonstrate a graduate's international experience, academic excellence, language proficiency, cultural adaptability, and a wider perspective, making them attractive to employers seeking globally minded and highly skilled individuals.

The objective is to give students more opportunities to study and train in several EU countries in the context of a joint study programme  such as those offered through the European Universities alliances and to be awarded a joint degree, as announced by Heads of State and Government in the European Council Conclusions of 14 December 2017 2 .

The initiative responds to the call from the higher education sector, in particular European Universities alliances, to facilitate and make more agile and attractive the delivery of joint educational offers in Europe, which are still often hampered by incompatible national administrative rules, legislations, or the lack of adequate professional incentives. It also responds to the call from students and employers to give more visibility to the skills and competencies acquired in a diverse, international setting.

Students would benefit from the most innovative pedagogies – as deployed for example in the European Universities alliances, Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters, Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA) Joint Doctoral Programmes, or programmes labelled by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) – to acquire future-proof skills sought by employers and to become innovators and entrepreneurs. Higher education institutions would also benefit from simpler processes to strengthen their cooperation in developing joint degree programmes that contribute to building their institutional capacities and raising their international profile.

2018 Eurobarometer 3

Universities can better solve big societal challenges by engaging more effectively in transnational cooperation.

·92% of universities identified the elimination of legal and administrative obstacles to international strategic institutional partnerships as a key issue.

·93% of respondents believe it would be useful to create EU degrees delivered by networks of European universities, offering students the chance to study in different EU countries, with a flexible choice of courses or modules. 

A European degree would be delivered at national, regional, or institutional level on a voluntary basis according to a common set of criteria agreed at the European level. The common set of criteria would make these degrees truly European, as they will still be awarded by universities accredited at the national or regional levels and be included in national legislation in the same way as other types of national degrees.

The processes of accreditation and quality assurance would be done following the regular procedures, regardless of whether programme or institutional accreditation is followed. The European degree would be automatically recognised across the European Union without having to meet any additional criteria or undergo additional recognition procedures.

To move towards a European degree, significant work is needed to improve and streamline quality assurance processes in higher education and to ensure attractive conditions for higher education academic staff involved in transnational cooperation.

The way quality assurance is regulated in many Member States and the discrepancies between national legislative frameworks hinders deep transnational cooperation and the development of joint degree programmes. A fit-for-purpose European Quality Assurance and Recognition System is key to facilitating and simplifying the delivery of high-quality learning provisions delivered jointly between different countries, such as a European degree or micro-credentials.

In addition, academic staff are indispensable for thriving European higher education institutions and deeper transnational cooperation. Building joint educational offers that include mobility, such as joint degree programmes, with innovative teaching and learning methods, requires substantial effort and dedication from academics. However, this is still not properly valorised and recognised in their career development and promotion. A European framework for attractive academic careers is key to operationalising the parity of esteem for teaching, research activities, and involvement in transnational cooperation such as the development of joint degree programmes.

The proposed higher education package is based on extensive evidence and consultation carried out with all relevant actors in the higher education sector, including higher education institutions, students, national quality assurance agencies, employers, and Member States authorities. The initiatives also build on the preliminary results of six ongoing Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects on a European degree and four ongoing Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects exploring a legal status for alliances of higher education institutions.

This package aims to: increase deeper transnational cooperation; boost the competitiveness and attractiveness of Europe’s higher education sector on the global stage; cultivate a flexible, skilled, innovative and resilient labour force; foster a strong sense of European belonging; and bring Europe a step closer to delivering the European Education Area by 2025 4 : develop a common EU space for learning mobility, multilingualism, and quality education for all, through strong transnational cooperation between education institutions, their staff, and their students.

This Staff Working Document provides the background to and the evidence for this higher education package.

·Chapter 1 looks at the higher education landscape in Europe and existing joint programmes and identifies current challenges.

·Chapter 2 presents the added value of a European degree and discusses the main findings of the policy experimentation projects testing the criteria and award process of the European degree.

·Chapter 3 introduces the main barriers and obstacles identified by the policy experimentation projects that need to be overcome in order to implement the European degree.

·Chapter 4 introduces the need for a fit-for-purpose European quality assurance and recognition system. Drawing on studies and consultations, it puts forward recommendations addressing the different kinds of existing quality assurance and recognition systems: institutional, programme-based, mixed, and cross-institutional.

·Chapter 5 discusses the need for a European framework for attractive, flexible, and sustainable careers in higher education. It summarises the findings of consultations and studies on this topic and identifies challenges and steps forward.

·Chapter 6 summarises the main findings of the Staff Working Document and outlines the future steps towards the European degree.

Chapter 1: A European degree - a key element to achieve the European Education Area and to boost Europe’s competitiveness and attractiveness

1.1.The importance of transnational cooperation in higher education

Transnational cooperation is a core tenet of our European way of life. Europe’s higher education sector has been a pioneer in embracing this principle to give an entire generation of Europeans the opportunity to study, train, teach, and conduct research across borders and sectors. Efforts such as the Erasmus+ programme 5 , the Bologna Process 6 , Erasmus Mundus 7 , and the European Universities Initiative 8 have set the ground for European higher education institutions to network and cooperate across borders, deliver joint education and research, and raise their profile internationally. They have strengthened European integration and consolidated the European Union as a reference in the global higher education landscape. 

Anchored in transnational cooperation, Europe’s higher education sector has demonstrated extraordinary resilience to address the most complex challenges, including the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic 9 ; providing continuous support to Ukraine’s education sector amidst Russia’s unjustified war of aggression 10 ; and encouraging action to ensure that Europe has the skills, talent, and innovation potential to achieve the green and digital transitions 11   12 .

According to the U-Multirank's Higher Education Cooperation Index 13 : 

·Higher education institutions that work together with other institutions, businesses, industries, governments, regional bodies, or across borders, perform better than those that are less focused on cooperation.

·European universities cooperate more intensively compared to other regions and have more joint degree programmes and higher student mobility rates than non-EU universities.

·Top performers in the Higher Education Cooperation Index have more students who graduate in time; a higher founding of graduate companies; and a larger publication output.

The transnational component of education is essential to equip Europeans with the competencies they need to thrive in a complex and hyperconnected world. Transnational cooperation enables higher education institutions to maximise the benefits of European diversity 14 , building on the core shared values of inclusion and excellence.

However, the same diversity that renders the European model unique presents challenges of its own that hamper the creation and delivery of joint educational provisions. They include lengthy and complex quality assurance procedures, incompatible legislative requirements, the lack of automatic mutual recognition of learning periods and qualifications obtained abroad, and the insufficient valorisation of the work of higher education academic staff that engage in transnational cooperation initiatives.

1.2.The Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area

Overcoming the complexity of bringing together the varied higher education systems in Europe has been the focus of the Bologna Process for the past two and a half decades. This process started with the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998 when the ministers of Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom committed to harmonising the architecture of the European higher education system. It was formalised in 1999 when 29 countries signed the Bologna Declaration 15 , agreeing to work together to develop the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) a common higher education space built on common values and using common tools that ensures more comparable, compatible, and coherent higher education systems in Europe 16 . Today, the European Higher Education Area includes 49 countries and the European Commission among its Members 17 . 

From the outset, the Bologna Process has encouraged joint programmes and joint degrees as a key element in supporting the internationalisation of higher education institutions. This has been reflected in every Bologna communiqué that has been adopted since 1998.

Ministerial Conferences are organised every two or three years to assess the progress made within the European Higher Education Area. Decisions are adopted in the form of communiqués. Joint programmes and joint degrees have been encouraged in all of them (emphasis added in bold) 18 :

Sorbonne, 1998:

‘Progressive harmonisation of the overall framework of our degrees and cycles can be achieved through strengthening of already existing experience, joint diplomas, pilot initiatives, and dialogue with all concerned.’

Prague, 2001:

To further strengthen the European dimensions of higher education and graduate employability, ‘Ministers called upon the higher education sector to increase the development of modules, courses and curricula at all levels with “European” content, orientation or organisation […] particularly [those] offered in partnership by institutions from different countries and leading to a recognized joint degree.

Ministers also encouraged the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) to ‘arrange seminars to explore [among other] areas: […] the development of joint degrees.’

Berlin, 2003:

Ministers noted ‘that initiatives have been taken by Higher Education Institutions in various European countries to pool their academic resources and cultural traditions in order to promote the development of integrated study programmes and joint degrees at first, second and third level. 

They also stressed ‘the necessity of ensuring a substantial period of study abroad in joint degree programmes as well as proper provision for linguistic diversity and language learning, so that students may achieve their full potential for European identity, citizenship and employability’; they agreed ‘to engage at the national level to remove legal obstacles to the establishment and recognition of such degrees and to actively support the development and adequate quality assurance of integrated curricula leading to joint degrees.’

Bergen, 2005:

We express support for the subsidiary texts to the Lisbon Recognition Convention and call upon all national authorities and other stakeholders to recognise joint degrees awarded in two or more countries in the EHEA.

They called for progress in the ‘implementation of the standards and guidelines for quality assurance as proposed in the ENQA report’; the ‘implementation of the national frameworks for qualifications’; andthe awarding and recognition of joint degrees, including at the doctorate level’.

London, 2007:

Easily readable and comparable degrees and accessible information on educational systems and qualifications frameworks are prerequisites for citizens’ mobility and ensuring the continuing attractiveness and competitiveness of the EHEA.’

Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, 2009:

‘Within each of the three cycles, opportunities for mobility shall be created in the structure of degree programmes. Joint degrees and programmes as well as mobility windows shall become more common practice.’

Bucharest, 2012:

‘We will allow EQAR-registered agencies to perform their activities across the EHEA, while complying with national requirements. In particular, we will aim to recognise quality assurance decisions of EQAR-registered agencies on joint and double degree programmes.

‘We encourage higher education institutions to further develop joint programmes and degrees as part of a wider EHEA approach. We will examine national rules and practices relating to joint programmes and degrees as a way to dismantle obstacles to cooperation and mobility embedded in national contexts.’

Yerevan, 2015:

‘A common degree structure and credit system, common quality assurance standards and guidelines, cooperation for mobility and joint programmes and degrees are the foundations of the EHEA.’

Paris, 2018:

‘In order to encourage the development of more joint programmes and joint degrees, we will also enable and promote the use of the “European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes” in our higher education systems.’

‘We will foster and extend integrated transnational cooperation in higher education, research and innovation, for increased mobility of staff, students and researchers, and for more joint study programmes throughout the whole EHEA.’

Rome, 2020:

‘Deeper cooperation between higher education institutions will help to address the above objectives through joint teaching and research. We will strive to eliminate obstacles to cooperation at national levels and to enable all higher education institutions in the EHEA to benefit from it. The alliances formed under the European Universities Initiative constitute one important way of exploring deeper, larger scale systemic cooperation, which can prove helpful for detecting and overcoming the obstacles to closer transnational cooperation by higher education institutions in the future.’

The Bologna Process has led diverse initiatives to build consistency and transparency across the European Higher Education Area to improve quality, inclusion and equity 19 , excellence and innovation in higher education 20 teaching and learning, and its global attractiveness 21 . 

Notably, in 2005, the Ministers of the European Higher Education Area adopted the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), to provide Member Countries with shared standards and guidelines for internal and external quality assurance of programmes 22 .

In 2015, the Ministers approved the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes 23  (European Approach) to facilitate the external quality assurance of joint programmes by using common standards, procedures, and tools, including the ESG.

The European Approach entails a single review for joint programmes coordinated and offered jointly by higher education institutions from two or more countries. The review is led by a quality assurance agency registered in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) 24 ; the result can be positive (valid for six years); positive subject to recommendations being met; or negative. In all cases, the review report is publicly published in the Database of External Quality Assurance Results (DEQAR) 25 .

The European Approach has minimised the workload involved in accreditation by implementing a single procedure and has increased the visibility and added value of joint degrees in the eyes of employers. However, the use of the European Approach remains modest – only 28 joint programmes have been fully accredited to date (February 2024) 26 .

1.3.The European Education Area

EU-led initiatives have contributed to accelerating the implementation of Bologna commitments and brought a new impetus to shared ambitions in higher education.  Examples include the 2006 European Parliament and Council Recommendation on further cooperation in quality assurance in higher education, which led to the creation of the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) 27 ; and the 2018 Council Recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition of higher education and upper secondary education and training qualifications and the outcomes of learning periods abroad 28 , which called on Member States to ensure the full implementation of the Bologna Process instruments.

A notable development was the European Commission Communication on strengthening European identity through education and culture 29 , published on 14 November 2017 in the leadup to the EU Leaders’ meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden. The communication set out the vision of the European Education Area as a common space for quality education and lifelong learning across borders for all. 

This idea was endorsed at the Social Summit in Gothenburg later that year and in the Council Conclusions of 7 June 2018, where Member States also expressed their support for the emergence of European Universities as bottom-up networks that [...] work seamlessly across borders, and which could play a flagship role in the creation of a European Education Area [...], contributing to empower new generations of European citizens and to strengthen the international competitiveness of higher education in Europe 30 . 

The first call of the European Universities Initiative was launched that same year. In September 2020, the European Commission Communication on Achieving the European Education Area by 2025 31 identified the need to explore a framework to ease the delivery of joint degree programmes of higher education alliances. The European Council backed this idea in its 2021 Conclusions on the European Universities initiative – Bridging higher education, research, innovation and society: Paving the way for a new dimension in European higher education 32 , inviting the Member States and the Commission to explore the feasibility of European degrees.

The 2022 Commission Communication on a European Strategy for Universities 33 further developed this vision by proposing exploratory work towards a European degree as part of four flagships to boost the European dimension of higher education. As a first step, the Commission committed to exploring and developing European criteria for the award of a European degree label that could be issued as a complementary certificate for students graduating from transnational joint programmes. Later that year, the Council Conclusions on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation 34 , invited the Commission to pilot the European criteria.

The Commission co-developed a set of preliminary European criteria with Member States, higher education institutions and other stakeholders and launched a call in June 2022 under the Erasmus+ policy experimentation action to test them 35 . Six project consortia involving over 60 higher education institutions and 17 ministries across the European Union and beyond were selected to conduct the pilots over a one-year period starting in April 2023 36 .

The European Parliament, in its resolution of 16 January 2024 on the implementation of the Erasmus+ programme 2021-2027 37 , added impetus to the Commission’s initiative on a European degree. Members of the European Parliament welcomed the steps taken towards a joint European degree label and common European diplomas’, highlighting that ’the creation of common curricula and research cooperation between universities in Europe are instrumental to address needs in strategic areas.

1.4.Joint transnational programmes in Europe

Joint programmes allow higher education institutions to enhance the quality and attractiveness of their academic offer and provide students with learning opportunities that individual institutions cannot deliver on their own. They enrich and facilitate mutual learning and cooperation; enhance student and staff mobility; and encourage the use of innovative pedagogies.

The European approach to Quality Assurance of joint programmes approved by European Higher Education Area (EHEA) ministers at their conference in Yerevan, May 2015, provides a definition of joint programmes and joint degrees 38 :

·Joint programmes: an integrated curriculum coordinated and offered jointly by different higher education institutions from the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) countries and leading to double/multiple degrees or a joint degree.

·Joint degree: a single document awarded by higher education institutions offering the joint programme and nationally acknowledged as the recognised award of the joint programme.

While it is difficult to estimate the total number of joint programmes that currently exist in Europe, data and literature suggest a growing trend for demand. In 2009, a Bologna Stocktaking Report estimated that there could be 2 500 joint programmes in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) 39 . Building on this, a Background Report on the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes, published in 2014, suggested that the number of joint programmes could be above 3 000, noting that ‘many more joint programmes could, however, be provided as joint degrees if national legislation, accreditation and recognition practices would become more suitable for awarding joint degrees 40 .

More recently, the six Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects that have explored the feasibility of a European degree have mapped about 1 000 joint programmes in Europe offered among 140 higher education institutions – including partners and associated partners. Given that Europe is home to almost 5 000 higher education institutions 41 , the total offer is likely larger and could grow even bigger with enabling frameworks at national, regional, and institutional levels. 

Joint transnational programmes have been long established in European higher education. Notable examples include the Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters programmes 42 and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Doctoral Networks 43 , along with the more recent European Universities alliances.

Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters programmes

The initiation of the Erasmus Mundus programme in 2004 rapidly supported a global reputation for joint programmes at the master level through multi-national consortia from Europe and abroad that construct a ‘joined-up’ teaching programme 44 . 

Statistics on the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree programmes (EMJMD) show that during 2014-2020 45 :

·369 higher education institutions were a coordinator or partner.

·60% of the top-10 European universities and nearly 75% of the 50 top-ranked European universities 46 participate in at least one of the 250 funded programmes, indicating excellence.

· 60% of participating higher education institutions were ranked beyond the top 500 in the world, underlining inclusiveness.

·Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree programmes have a global reach: 80% of the 7 718 students that received scholarships came from partner countries 47 .

The programme remains highly competitive and has delivered significant value for its graduates. Erasmus Mundus has also been a rich testbed to understand the challenges involved in building a transnational teaching and learning offer at the master level.

The latest Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Graduate Impact Surveys 48  reveal that graduates 49 from these joint programmes:

·Report the greatest impact in their careers and intercultural experiences.

·Improve employment-relevant skills, such as language (78%), critical thinking (77%) sector- or field-specific skills (76%), communication (74%), and analytical and problem-solving (74%) skills.

·Improve personal and intercultural development, including openness about new challenges (82%), tolerance (79%), confidence in their own abilities (76%), and awareness of own strengths and weaknesses (75%).

·Are more likely to find a job that matches their education than the average master graduate 50 .

The Erasmus Mundus Design Measures (EMDM) were introduced in 2021 to support the design of innovative, transnational and integrated study programmes at master level 51 . Statistics from the Erasmus Mundus latest call for proposals 52 report that coordinating partners of the newly selected proposals come from several Member States and that a third of the higher education institutions participating in the Erasmus Mundus Design Measures were new organisations.

Figure 1.1: Geographical origin of coordinating partners of Erasmus Mundus actions under the second 2021-2027 call

Source: European Commission, European Education and Culture Executive Agency, Erasmus Mundus, analysis of the results of the second 2021-2027 call (joint masters and design measures) – Erasmus+ Programme, Publications Office of the European Union, 2023,  https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2797/38904 . 

Since 2004 53 , the Erasmus Mundus programme has funded 719 joint masters and 43 joint doctoral programmes 54 , and it has supported 155 Erasmus Mundus Design Measures since 2021 55 . The figures underline that the reach of Erasmus Mundus is strong and still growing after nearly two decades and suggest the clear latent potential to build more transnational joint programmes beyond existing Erasmus-funded measures.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Joint Doctoral Networks

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Joint Doctoral Networks are a prime example of highly integrated transnational cooperation in doctoral training. PhD candidates are enrolled in a joint programme and are jointly supervised, leading to the delivery of joint, double, or multiple doctoral degrees. The goal of this EU-funded action is to train highly skilled doctoral candidates, stimulate their creativity and innovation capacity, and boost their employability 56 .

88 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Joint Doctoral programmes were funded between 2014 and 2023, involving more than 1 200 individual fellowships 57 . The share of submitted proposals for Joint Doctorates has remained stable over time, accounting for approximately 7% of all submitted proposals under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie action between 2014 and 2023 58 . This speaks of the continued interest for joint programmes at the doctoral level.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) 59 also has an extensive portfolio of joint programmes across its Knowledge Innovation Communities (KICs) and an ‘online campus’ 60 that provides education opportunities from over 200 partners.

European Universities alliances

Further impetus for joint transnational programmes at all levels (bachelor, master, and doctoral) came in 2018 with the launch of the first call for European Universities alliances. These are inter-university campuses that pool their expertise, platforms, and resources to integrate long-term joint education strategies, and deliver joint curricula and flexible learning pathways, allowing students, staff, and researchers to move seamlessly between alliance members 61 .

To date, the European Universities Initiative 62 has supported the creation of 50 European Universities alliances, involving more than 430 higher education institutions, and has the ambitious goal of expanding to 60 European Universities alliances by mid-2024 63 .  

Preliminary data from the monitoring framework of the European Universities Initiative, carried out in autumn 2023, shows that European Universities alliances have created nearly 160 joint programmes since the beginning of the initiative 64 . A particularly important development is the creation of joint bachelor programmes, such as the Una Europa joint bachelor on European studies 65 .

Una Europa's Joint Bachelor of Arts in European Studies

The Una Europa Joint Bachelor of Arts in European Studies (BAES) is one of the few joint programmes at bachelor level. Co-developed by 11 partner universities and accredited using the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes, the programme examines the fundamental aspects and values of the European Union and of European states and societies.

Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, it reflects on Europe’s role in the world. Through its extensive mobility programme, students can study in two or three universities, which gives them the opportunity to not only learn about Europe, but also to experience it first hand and grow in a truly international setting.

Additionally, the European Universities Alliances seem to have increased the use of the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes, reflected on a number of new programmes recently accredited or that plan to do so.

The Bologna Process had succeeded in establishing components and tools for accelerating the provision of transnational teaching and learning throughout the European Higher Education Area, but until the European Universities Initiative 66 , there had not been a mechanism in place to bring together all the elements into a full testbed that could further inform policy developments.

Latent potential of joint transnational programmes

The attractiveness and competitiveness showcased by the Erasmus Mundus programme over the past two decades and, more recently, by the European Universities Initiative, have not yet been translated into the widespread and systematic adoption of the transnational model across European higher education systems.

Academic and administrative staff still face many obstacles when building transnational and multi-disciplinary programmes. European Universities alliances themselves have faced considerable difficulties in putting joint programmes in motion: a study by the European University Association shows that conferences of rectors point to accreditation and quality assurance of joint programmes as the most common challenge faced by the alliances 67 . 

The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) 68 , which brings together information about the diverse quality assurance practices across European countries, recognises that the European Approach has been an important development to facilitate the creation of transnational joint programmes in Europe. Nonetheless, as experienced by Erasmus Mundus Joint Master programmes and the European Universities alliances, the wider development of transnational teaching and learning is still often hampered by incompatible national administrative rules and legislation.

The diversity of approaches is documented in detail through the European Network of Information Centres and the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (ENIC/NARIC) 69 network which provides country information across areas such as quality assurance, the recognition of foreign qualifications, and overall qualifications frameworks 70 .

1.5.The need to act

Despite the considerable progress that Europe’s higher education sector has made over the past 25 years, challenges still need to be overcome to meet the demand for transnational educational offer and facilitate the development, delivery, and recognition of transnational joint programmes in the European Education Area.

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a unique challenge to transnational cooperation, reflected in a steep decline in student mobility rates across the EU, from 11.2% in 2020 to 9.8% in 2021. However, as indicated in the Education and Training Monitor 2023, the limited growth in the share of mobile students in the years leading up to 2021, ‘suggests that there are other barriers to mobility besides those imposed by the pandemic that would need to be removed if the EU is to establish a European Education Area. 71  

Indeed, according to a recent study that included interviews with European Universities alliances, the main obstacles to transnational cooperation arise from restrictive elements of national legislation and a lack of the full implementation of agreed Bologna tools 72 . 

‘The work on the creation of the collaborative degree programmes in the pilot phase of RUN-EU has shown that the implementation of Bologna tools varies quite extensively between European countries. This includes, for instance, different duration and ECTS loads for same level degree programmes, different grading systems, study periods as well as a wide range of barriers to recognition.

RUN-EU (European Universities alliance with members in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands) – Call for Evidence.

The implementation of Bologna tools and procedures has been uneven across the European Union. In some cases instruments are not allowed or, while allowed, they are restricted to a limited number of cases or cannot be used in practice due to additional national requirements. This limits the added value and the systemic impact of Bologna tools and means that the legal framework of one single country can limit progress for the rest willing to participate in joint transnational programmes.

The Mobility Scoreboard 2022/2023 73 shows uneven progress toward automatic recognition among countries in the European Higher Education Area:

·Only 13 education systems 74 have system level automatic recognition of degrees that are issued in all other European Higher Education Area countries.

·15 systems 75 have automatic recognition for some European countries, usually based on regional, bilateral or multilateral agreements.

·11 education systems 76  have no automatic recognition and separate procedures apply to the qualifications issued by all European Higher Education Area countries.

While more joint programmes are being developed by universities to combine the complementary strengths from different institutions, only a minority lead to a joint degree. The 2020 study Implementing joint degrees in the Erasmus Mundus action of the Erasmus+ programme shows that only a third (32%) of Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters Degree programmes manage to deliver fully joint degrees 77 , whereas most of them (44%) deliver multiple or double degrees, and 23% award a combination of joint and single degrees 78 .

This means that less than half (43%) of the full partner higher education institutions taking part in an Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters programme succeeded in establishing joint degree arrangements with one or more of their counterparts 79 . The reasons are linked to administrative difficulties and disparities between national (and regional) legislation. The more countries are involved, the more complicated it becomes to develop joint programmes and award joint degrees.

Among the 40 first European Universities alliances supported by the Erasmus+ programme, about 160 new joint degree programmes have been developed at all levels (bachelor, masters, and doctoral). However, preliminary data from the 2023 monitoring framework of the European Universities Initiative indicate that European Universities alliances often struggle to align legal frameworks, academic calendars, accreditation requirements, tuition fees, and administrative practices, even more when creating joint programmes at the bachelor level 80 .

An additional challenge concerns the decision of awarding a single joint degree or multiple (dual) degrees. Since awarding a single joint degree is a complex process that requires aligning differing national criteria, it is not always possible for all alliance partners to act as full degree-awarding institutions, leading some European Universities alliances to opt for dual/multiple degrees 81 .  

Similarly, there is no authoritative or transparent framework to present degree transcripts from transnational joint programmes that detail the extent of the achievements, skills, and competencies of international graduates. This is a problem in the current multi-national, multi-disciplinary labour market driven by innovation ecosystems.

A recent report examining the state of play of joint degrees under Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters programmes identifies legislative, institutional, and recognition barriers to the implementation of joint degrees 82 .

At doctoral level, a 2022 report analysing the obstacles faced by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Joint Doctoral Networks in Horizon 2020, indicates similar or even more complex incompatibilities, since doctoral degrees are subject to more rigid regulations 83 .

A coherent and transparent framework for transnational joint degrees in the field of higher education is still missing and systemic change is required to bring it into existence. Some national and/or regional legislative frameworks in EU Member States do not clearly distinguish between joint degrees and joint programmes, and when legal provisions exist, the terminology differs substantially 84 . Although joint programmes and even joint degrees might not be explicitly forbidden, existing regulations on the necessary components of joint programmes can render them de facto impossible. 

An important obstacle to the implementation of joint programmes is related to quality assurance. Despite the adoption of the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes in 2015 by Ministers of the European Higher Education Area, its uptake remains modest, with only 28 joint programmes having been accredited to date (February 2024) 85 . This confirms the need for further action to simplify and widen quality assurance for joint degree programmes.

Indeed, a recent study investigating the impact and feasibility of a European degree found that some of the main challenges that higher education institutions need to overcome when setting up joint programmes include the need to undergo multiple accreditation procedures, difficult reaccreditation procedures, and the varying durations for which joint programmes are accredited. While in theory a single accreditation for joint programmes should suffice, multiple parallel procedures are often a reality’. 86

Closely related to quality assurance is the challenge of ensuring automatic recognition of joint degrees. The 2018 Council Recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition of higher education and upper secondary education and training qualifications and the outcomes of learning periods abroad 87 called for the implementation of automatic recognition by 2025  a key objective of both the European Higher Education Area and the European Education Area.

However, the experience of European Universities alliances suggests that the lack of automatic recognition remains a pressing issue for joint programmes 88 . This is confirmed by the recent report from the European Commission to the European Council that shows that one-third of higher education institutions check the quality assurance processes of the other institution when deciding on whether to recognise a qualification 89 . 

A final issue is the need to ensure attractive working conditions and reward mechanisms for the academic staff engaged in excellent teaching and learning, including the design and implementation of joint programmes. World-class innovative teaching and learning are needed to deliver world-class joint programmes, but the career focus of most higher education institutions remains research. There is limited parity of esteem for other activities such as teaching and learning, administration, community outreach, business development, or engagement in transnational cooperation.

According to a recent study that surveyed higher education institutions representatives and academic staff, two thirds of respondents indicate that transnational cooperation in teaching and learning is part of the higher education institutional strategy, and that career pathways for academic staff enable, support, and encourage engagement in transnational cooperation activities. However, only 40% agree that engagement in transnational cooperation is effectively considered in appraisal, promotion, and rewards mechanisms 90 .

In November 2022 the Commission published its progress report towards the achievement of the European Education Area 91 . The report noted the strategic importance of expanding transnational learning mobility for all students across the European Education Area; having a fit-for-purpose European quality assurance and recognition system; and piloting a European degree label that attests the learning outcomes and skills obtained from joint transnational programmes.

Following on from this report, the Commission has proposed a new target of at least 25% of graduates in higher education having a learning mobility experience (up from the current 20% target) 92 . This adds urgency to the challenge of overcoming barriers to transnational cooperation, including administrative burden, lack of automatic recognition schemes, and incentives for academic staff engaging in the development and delivery of transnational joint programmes. 

1.6.Building bridges for effective European cooperation in higher education

On 5 April 2022, the Council adopted a Recommendation on building bridges for effective European cooperation in higher education 93 with the aim of enabling deeper and more sustainable transnational cooperation among higher education institutions across Europe.

The recommendation invited EU Member States to implement more coherent legislative frameworks at national level that encourage and facilitate transnational cooperation; enable students to engage in cross-border study programmes and training; and strengthen the inclusiveness, excellence, diversity, attractiveness, and global competitiveness of Europe’s higher education sector.

The Council specifically called on Member States to facilitate the implementation of joint programmes and the award of joint degrees, as well as to explore the delivery of a joint European degree label and the introduction of institutionalised cooperation instruments, including a possible legal status for European Universities alliances.

It also included concrete recommendations to encourage sustained financial support for transnational cooperation (such as national funding for alliances of European universities); strengthen institutional autonomy; support an institutional approach to quality assurance and the implementation of the European Approach to Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes; encourage the provision of high quality virtual collaborative learning and lifelong learning opportunities; and ensure diversity, inclusion, equality, and gender balance in the governance structures of higher education institutions.

The European Commission was tasked with evaluating the progress made by Member States in implementing the recommendation. To this end, the Commission launched an online survey in spring 2023 following consultations with Member States’ representatives taking part in the European Education Area Strategic Framework Working Group on Higher Education. 29 responses from 28 countries 94 were received with considerable feedback from national administrations.

The draft survey report 95 revealed that some Member States have made considerable progress in some areas. However, it also showed that progress is uneven, and that considerable work remains ahead.

Exploring the potential implementation of a European degree and a legal status for alliances of higher education institutions

Most countries indicated that they encourage the provision of joint programmes and joint degrees, although the measures and scope vary. In some cases, members of European Universities alliances were encouraged to apply to the Erasmus+ call to test the implementation of European degree label. In others, the establishment of joint programmes and the delivery of joint degrees is simply ‘allowed’ in the framework of the institutional autonomy that higher education institutions have, with no specific support in place. Some countries reported having amended their higher education legislation to simplify the implementation of joint degrees, although in some cases the amendments apply only to higher education institutions that are part of a European Universities alliance.

Two thirds of the countries said that they are waiting for the outcomes of the Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects (launched in 2023) before they examine the potential delivery of a European degree label.

Over half of the countries surveyed indicated that some of their higher education institutions are able to test the implementation of a legal status for alliances of European universities. In half of those countries, this was possible before the adoption of the Council recommendation. Just as with joint programmes and joint degrees, the possibility to test a legal status for alliances of higher education institutions applies mostly to members of existing European Universities alliances. This represents, nonetheless, a positive step forward.

Implementation of innovative joint transnational education activities

There are other barriers that could restrict deep transnational cooperation, including the implementation and delivery of joint programmes and joint degrees. They encompass admission and enrolment criteria, the languages of instruction, the absence of flexible learning pathways (such as small learning experiences and micro-credentials), inconsistent use of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), the lack of automatic mutual recognition, and strict rules defining the template of joint degrees.

Most countries reported no barriers to student mobility in joint programmes on any of the aspects mentioned above, arguing that all (or most of them) had already been addressed in the past. However, this does not match the findings from the literature review, the studies carried out in preparation for this higher education package, or the outcomes from the Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects.

Some of the respondents that provided more detail on identified or removed barriers, highlighted the use of EU funding to address issues, including the provision of digital education opportunities, or enabling the use of micro-credentials. Where barriers remain, some countries invoked the institutional autonomy of higher education institutions to determine their own approach to the provision of joint transnational education activities.

Embedded mobility in joint transnational educational programmes

Two thirds of respondents indicated that they provide legal or financial support for higher education institutions to increase and embed student mobility (physical, virtual, or blended) in joint programmes. Some of the support measures mentioned include changes in national qualifications frameworks to allow the delivery of joint degrees; funding for higher education institutions participating in a European Universities alliance; embedding mobility and internationalisation in performance-based funding; providing students with grant top-ups and grant portability; the introduction of mobility windows; and the implementation of EU initiatives, such as the European Student Card 96 . Only a minority of higher education systems reported having adapted their academic calendars, admission and enrolment systems, tuition fees, or grading rules.

Sustained financial support for transnational cooperation

Most respondents reported providing some kind of financial support for transnational cooperation This can be for all higher education institutions or additional support for specific transnational cooperation activities, such as taking part in European Universities alliances. Most respondents also indicated having mobilised funding sources to match or complement EU funding (Erasmus+) for higher education institutions taking part in European Universities alliances. However, the mechanisms and amount of support vary across Member States – from specific contributions to the mandatory co-funding requirement for members of European Universities alliances 97 to fixed amounts, specific programmes at the national level, or financial support embedded in core funding for higher education institutions (sometimes performance-based).

Institutional autonomy

Two thirds of respondents indicated that they perceived no need to take action to strengthen institutional autonomy. However, the rest indicated that change is needed to enhance autonomy in areas such as internal financial matters, involvement of staff and students in decision-making, internal governance arrangements, staffing and academic matters, and the protection of academic freedom. Among those that indicated no need for action, several countries pointed to the fact that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are protected in their national legal frameworks.

These results do not always match the information reflected in the 2023 Autonomy Scorecard, published by the European University Association (EUA) 98 . Interestingly, some of the low performers in the 2023 Autonomy Scorecard were among those that reported no need for action, whereas the highest performers tended to highlight the need to pay continued attention to safeguard institutional autonomy.

Quality assurance

Only a third of the countries reported relying mostly on institutional external quality assurance (which provides more flexibility for the award of joint degrees and other forms of transnational cooperation). Over half of the countries surveyed rely on a mixed approach to quality assurance that combines institutional and programme-based approaches. Only a minority of them indicated having plans to transition towards a full institutional approach to quality assurance.

Regarding the implementation of the European Approach for the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes (European Approach), nearly two thirds of respondents mentioned that they either do not use it or use it with additional national criteria. While most countries allow external quality assurance to be carried out by any agency registered in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR), about a third do not allow it or impose additional national requirements.

This underlines the uneven implementation of Bologna Process tools and commitments, as well as the complex quality assurance landscape facing the implementation of joint programmes and the award of joint degrees.

High-quality virtual collaborative learning and recognition of transnational cooperation in academic careers

The survey revealed that two out of three higher education systems affirm that they provide (or plan to provide) support for higher education institutions to develop virtual and online collaborative international learning models and courses. More than half of the countries surveyed reported that they valorise and recognise (or have plans to do so) the time spent by academic staff on developing innovative pedagogies and new research practices through transnational cooperation.

A similar proportion stated that they support (or plan to support) the development of shared and interoperable learning environments (virtual and blended) and virtual campuses; the exchange of educational content and FAIR data 99 ; and the piloting of open-source solutions to overcome common challenges.

Development of joint interdisciplinary transnational education activities

Most respondents reported supporting challenge-based approaches where learners from different backgrounds cooperate with researchers, companies, cities, regions, non-governmental organisations, and local communities in finding creative and innovative solutions to global and shared challenges.

However, half of them do so by referring to the institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and flexibility enabled by their regulatory frameworks or to the fact that their higher education institutions receive general financing for all types of activities essential to them. Half of those that reported providing no support in this area cited similar reasons, since the institutional autonomy that their higher education institutions enjoy already allows them to engage in challenge-based approaches if they wish to. Specific legal and financial support was reported by few countries.

Almost all respondents reported providing support (or having plans to support) high-quality lifelong learning opportunities to facilitate upskilling and reskilling. Again, some responses highlighted the institutional autonomy of higher education institutions as the key enabler, but half of the countries reported having financial support measures in place that draw on national or EU funding.

Governance

The inclusive engagement of different members of the higher education community in governance structures is essential to ensuring effective transnational cooperation. Some countries said that they had no concrete plans to step up their efforts in this area, but this could be a sign of the maturity of a higher education system with a long tradition of autonomous institutions.

The results suggest that the governance structures of most higher education institutions in Europe generally include internal and external stakeholders – from students and academic staff to social partners, employers, and others. However, it is not clear how their involvement impacts decision-making related to transnational cooperation.

Over half of the respondents reported supporting diverse backgrounds of members in governance structures, gender balance, and opportunities for peer learning.



Chapter 2: A European degree - key parameters and its added value

In recent years there has been a steady increase for the demand of joint study programmes and joint degrees, supported by the Bologna Process and the vision of a European Education Area, as well as by the development of more Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters programmes, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Doctoral Networks, programmes labelled by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) and the launch of the European Universities initiative. However, this increase remains well below demand, as there are still too many obstacles for administrative staff, academics, and students in developing joint programmes and joint degrees.

The evidence gathered points to many obstacles and barriers to the development of joint programmes, even more so for joint degree programmes. The underlying reasons are, among others, big administrative difficulties and too many disparities between national (and regional) legislation. In addition, the complexity increases dramatically with the number of countries involved in the delivery of joint programmes and award of joint degrees. Many more joint programmes could be offered as joint degrees if national legislation, accreditation and recognition practices became more conducive to their development.

At the same time, there has been a strong political will to take forward the ambition of a framework to facilitate the delivery of joint degrees, starting with the European Council Conclusions of 14 December 2017 100 which called for the creation of European Universities alliances enabling students ‘to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and contribute to the international competitiveness of European universities’.

In 2021, the Council conclusions on the European Universities initiative - Bridging higher education, research, innovation and society: Paving the way for a new dimension in European higher education 101 acknowledged the need to take action to ease the delivery of joint degree programmes of higher education institutions. It invited Member States and the Commission to develop, within the context of the European Education Area and in full respect of the national and regional higher education systems, ‘clear proposals, starting from 2022, hand in hand with the relevant higher education national and regional authorities, higher education institutions and stakeholders, to help remove where necessary the obstacles for cooperation at the European level, by exploring, for example, the need and feasibility for European degrees within the alliances of European Universities, and by promoting further European cooperation on quality assurance and automatic mutual recognition in higher education’.

Following the invitation, in January 2022, the Commission Communication on a European Strategy for Universities 102 took up the challenge of proposing a pathway towards a European degree. Shortly afterwards, in April 2022, this endeavour was further encouraged in the Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation with a mandate to conduct Erasmus+ policy experimentation.

Meanwhile, available evidence from studies 103 and the Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects shows that relevant stakeholders, including higher education institutions, national quality assurance agencies and students, also recognise the added value of a European degree for transnational higher education cooperation and for the European Union as a whole. The contributions collected suggest that higher education institutions and national agencies believe that the European degree will greatly enhance the global reputation of European higher education and support the dissemination of European values across Europe and beyond, while students expect it to improve their employability in the labour market 104 .

In the light of the above considerations, this chapter presents a step-by-step approach that could be taken towards the awarding of a European degree, i.e., the awarding of a European degree label to joint programmes that meet a set of European criteria, or as a degree inserted as a formal type of qualification in national legislative frameworks, awarded by higher education institutions on the basis of the set of European criteria.

First, the chapter presents an overview of the benefits of a European degree. It then synthesises the preliminary findings of the policy experimentation projects funded by the Erasmus+ programme, which were set up to test and explore the concepts of a European degree label and a possible European degree as a type of qualification. The findings include the identification of the challenges that remain for the implementation of joint degrees, the evaluation of the co-created award criteria and how the award process could be operationalised.

2.1Benefits and added value of a European degree

The data available from studies 105 and the preliminary outcomes of policy experimentation projects, show that a European degree would help to increase the number of joint programmes and joint degrees delivered, would enable the joint delivery of innovative and transformative education, facilitate transnational higher education cooperation, and bring several benefits for students, staff, employers, higher education institutions, higher education systems, and the EU as whole.

A European degree would be delivered at the national level based on a common set of criteria agreed at the European level. It is this common set of criteria that would make these degrees truly European, as they will still be awarded by universities accredited at the national or regional levels and be included in national legislation as are other types of national degrees. The processes of accreditation and quality assurance could also be done following the regular procedures, regardless of whether programme or institutional accreditation exists. The European degree would be automatically recognised across the European Union without having to meet any additional criteria or undergo additional recognition procedures.

Benefits for students

Beyond the European symbolic value, the European degree would demonstrate a graduate's international experience, academic excellence, language proficiency, cultural adaptability, and a wider perspective, making them attractive to employers seeking globally minded and highly skilled individuals. It would offer not only more mobility opportunities, but also empower students to choose what, where and when to study, promoting brain circulation across Europe.

In a recent study 106 , 9 out of 10 students signalled that a European degree would bring them opportunities for:

·Studying in another European country.

·Completing innovative study programmes. 

·Receiving excellent education.

·Obtaining skills and competencies relevant to the labour market.

A European degree would give students a pathway to excellence, employability, and a global perspective, encapsulating the essence of a well-rounded and transnational-oriented education. It would provide access to truly transnational joint degree programmes and streamline the process of credit recognition across diverse institutions, ensuring a seamless academic experience and allowing students to forge their own transnational educational pathways.

 

‘Students should benefit from a European degree in terms of individual visibility when entering the labour market, and study programs should benefit as well in terms of attracting students.

Heidelberg University (Germany) – Call for Evidence.

Beyond academic benefits, the degree would also enhance students’ employability by equipping them with high-level skills gained through high-quality programmes and connecting them to extensive networks of partner institutions. A survey that analysed three Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters graduation cohorts (2010/11, 2015/16, and 2019/20), found that graduates are more likely to find a job that matches their education than the average graduate from another masters programme; graduates also report that the area in which they perceive their studies to have had the highest impact is their careers 107 . This builds on the findings on the benefits of Erasmus+: a majority of Erasmus+ students (72%) report that mobility has been beneficial for their careers, and data suggests that mobile students tend to find a job faster and to be more satisfied with it than non-mobile students 108 .

According to joint programme graduates who participated in the REDEEM 2 project survey, the three most important benefits they gained from their joint programme included personal development (96.5%), a better understanding of the professional activity in their area of expertise (94.9%), and a better understanding of a culture other than their own (90.5%). They also reported that the skills they improved the most were the ability to work in an international context (63.7%), the capacity to adapt and act in new situations (52.5%), and intercultural competence (50.5%).

Further analysis revealed that graduates from joint programmes tend to show slightly higher employment rates than regular graduates (90% vs 85%) and report a greater overlap between their work and their study field 109 . Moreover, the emphasis on interdisciplinary experiences and diverse learning opportunities cultivates a broad set of cross-cultural competencies, preparing graduates to thrive in diverse environments and contributing to strengthening a European perspective and identity.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), employers use language proficiency to identify characteristics such as adaptability and openness to other cultures, which are difficult to evaluate in recruitment processes 110 . The OECD highlights that multilingual Individuals are more likely to display a heightened intercultural understanding and actively participate in global issues than monolingual individuals. These are crucial skills that promote social cohesion in today’s diverse societies. The benefits that a European degree would bring to students are aligned with the expectations of young Europeans.

The 2018 Eurobarometer on the European Education Area 111  clearly identified the value that young Europeans attach to transnational education:

·90% of them regard an experience in another country as being important.

·91% of them agreed that their academic qualifications and learning periods in another country should be automatically recognised across all Member States.

·93% of them saw real value in creating European degrees being awarded by networks of European universities, offering students the chance to study in different EU countries, with a flexible choice of courses or modules offered within the network.

·97% agreed that it would benefit their learning experience if they had an opportunity to work on innovative projects alongside academics, researchers and companies from different countries [] [and] to study and work together across disciplines and departments.

·77% wanted to learn a new language and 84% would like to improve the knowledge of a foreign language they have previously learnt.

These were powerful messages from our young people, and they place a strong expectation on higher education to deliver opportunities in transnational teaching and learning. Some seven years on from this survey, and with both physical and blended mobility featuring in Erasmus+, it is time to enable their expectations and take teaching and learning into a richer European context.

Benefits for higher education institutions and academic staff

For higher education institutions, a European degree offers numerous advantages. Firstly, it would support rationalisation efforts through a complementarity approach, allowing institutions to collectively provide more opportunities than they could individually. This collaborative vision enhances the standing of universities within alliances on a European (and global) scale. Joint degree programmes prompt institutions to rethink teaching structures, learning methods, and competency assessment, fostering a dynamic and modernised educational environment.

Furthermore, the European degree would enhance internationalisation opportunities by significantly reducing the administrative burden linked to the design and delivery of joint degree programmes. In doing so, it would contribute to attracting a more diverse student body and raising the institutional profile on the global stage. It would also facilitate collaborative research and development projects with partner institutions, offering specialisations in fields where individual expertise may be limited. The dissemination of successful models in education, research, and societal engagement further contributes to institutional growth.

‘The idea of a European Joint Degree - the initiative, aiming to streamline the legal frameworks for awarding degrees across Europe, is seen as a pivotal step towards removing the national and international barriers that have historically hampered the establishment and sustainability of joint degree programmes’.

EURASHE (European Association of Institutions in Higher Education) – Call for Evidence.

The European degree would be a way to recognise and highlight the effort put into developing and implementing joint programmes. It would help to empower staff and provide them with additional opportunities for recognition, professional development, and international collaboration and innovation. Better acknowledgement and valorisation of their involvement in transnational education would support academic staff in seeking out and exploiting mobility opportunities and expanding their academic networks.

The complementarity approach of joint degree programmes not only enables staff to contribute to a more comprehensive educational offering but also supports the exchange of teaching methodologies with faculty from partner institutions. Staff would be encouraged to be more mobile, work with international partners, and update their knowledge, skills, and methodologies for the benefit of the whole academic community, for instance, by experimenting and testing new pedagogies, engaging in research projects, and increasing their capacity to navigate diverse classrooms.

A report by the European Tertiary Education Register (ETER) covering more than 1 500 European higher education institutions, showed that the internationalisation of academic staff is uneven across European countries and types of institutions: north-western and research-oriented higher education institutions attract the largest proportions of foreign academic staff 112 .

Additionally, academic and non-academic staff would benefit from simpler cooperation mechanisms to establish, deliver and manage joint programmes. The development and delivery of joint programmes place a significant burden on staff in terms of efforts, time, and resources as many barriers need to be overcome for a joint programme to become a reality.

A recent study showed that about 80% of higher education institutions surveyed consider that a European degree would reduce existing barriers to the design, implementation, and delivery of joint and transdisciplinary programmes, as well as ease quality assurance requirements and the implementation of innovative educational components. Furthermore, 90% agree that a European degree would increase transparency and facilitate the automatic recognition of joint and double degrees 113 .

Benefits for employers

A European degree would allow employers to identify the talent that they need. The European degree is designed to be easily understood, facilitating streamlined recruitment processes for employers seeking internationally minded individuals who are resilient, open to change, and have future-oriented skills.

‘From the point of view of companies, especially SMEs, this initiative could contribute to meeting the challenges of the labour market, especially related to digital and green transitions, with qualified professionals who meet the required skills. The testing of the level of knowledge of a foreign language, the carrying out of a traineeship period abroad, a preparation oriented towards environmental and social sustainability, the ability to use technologies and digitalisation are common requirements that should be at the basis of the joint European degree’.

Confartigianato Imprese (European network of Italian artisan businesses and small entrepreneurs) – Call for Evidence.

A study on the impacts of learning mobility on the skills and employability of students, found that 64% of employers consider an international experience as important for recruitment and that 92% look for transversal skills such as tolerance, confidence, problem-solving, and curiosityall of which are boosted during international mobility 114 .

This is further highlighted by mobile students themselves, who report perceived improvements in skills relevant to the labour market after their mobility abroad, including adaptability (91%), intercultural competencies (90%), communication skills (89%), foreign language skills (88%), critical thinking (79%), planning and organisational skills (77%), analytical and problem-solving skills (76%), teamwork (72%), and sector- or field-specific skills (71%) 115 . 

The skills of the future

·The recent report, ‘The Future of Recruiting’ 116 , emphasises that the top five soft skills that recruiters will be looking for in the next five years include communication, relationship building, adaptability, problem-solving, and business acumen.

According to the 2023 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Skills Outlook 117 :

·Multilingualism is associated with increased employability and higher wages.

·Multilingual individuals exhibit enhanced linguistic capacity, divergent thinking skills (associated with creativity), attentional control, working memory, and abstract and symbolic representation skills, which are growing in importance with digital innovations and Artificial Intelligence.

·Critical thinking is crucial for identifying fake news and is supported by dispositions such as open- and fair-mindedness and curiosity.

·Envisioning and creating sustainable futures requires creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, and the capacity to engage in effective communication and collective action.

In essence, graduates holding a European degree would stand out as uniquely qualified candidates, bringing a combination of problem-solving prowess, adaptability, multilingualism, multiculturalism, and interdisciplinary expertise that aligns seamlessly with the evolving demands of the global workforce.

Benefits for national and regional higher education systems

At national and regional levels, a European degree presents a nuanced approach that balances the preservation of distinct characteristics inherent to national or regional education systems with a clear path towards transnational cooperation based on shared European values.

This collaborative educational framework would serve to attract talent while simultaneously giving local students opportunities for transnational education. In this way, it will act as a proactive measure against brain drain, promoting a healthy circulation of intellectual capital and helping prevent brain drain by raising the profile of all European education systems.

Brain circulation in the European Union

The limited internationalisation of local higher education institutions can incentivise young people to seek opportunities elsewhere.

A recent report by European Commission services 118 that surveyed 2 027 young Europeans (aged between 15 and 29) found that:

·Nearly 60% (1 191) had left their home region at some point in their lives. Most of them (77%) had obtained a third level education at a university.

·The lack of adequate study opportunities in their local higher education institutions was one of the three main factors that typically influenced their decision to leave their home region. 

·Analysis of open-ended responses revealed five dominant themes in which this factor played an important role in respondents’ decision to leave their home region:

oCourses offered by local higher education institutions do not match student interests.

oThe quality and format of study programmes are perceived as unsatisfactory.

oThe reputation of the local higher education institutions does not match student expectations.

oDesire to study in an international setting.

oPerceived mismatch between the studies offered by the local higher education institutions and the job opportunities in the local labour market 119 .

Based on interviews with stakeholders on the ground in the EU Member States, the report suggests that young people’s motivation to stay in or return to their home regions can be encouraged by empowering them to participate in European mobility schemes and training opportunities, as well as by creating links between education, research, and the labour market through innovation and entrepreneurship.

The European degree would serve as a powerful tool to enhance the attractiveness of national and regional education systems, particularly those that are less internationalised. The simplification of procedures for establishing joint degree programmes further encourages transnational cooperation, making it more accessible and efficient. A recent survey showed that 9 out of 10 respondents –among higher education institutions and national authorities– believe that a European degree would allow for better cooperation between ministries and other educational authorities across the EU; facilitate brain circulation; and encourage international students to study in European institutions 120 .

‘The successful creation of the joint European degrees would have an important effect on the competitiveness and attractiveness of European higher education globally’.

HAMK (Häme University of Applied Sciences, Finland) – Call for Evidence.

The long-term spill-over effects of good practices from joint programmes would contribute positively to inspiring other national and regional systems. In essence, at the national and regional levels, a European degree emerges as a catalyst for global talent attraction, educational system enhancement, and sustained labour market improvements.

Benefits for Europe

At the European level, a European degree would play a pivotal role in fostering a strong sense of European identity by building on common values and shared educational experiences among students. A recent survey of students, higher education institutions, and national authorities, showed that 9 out of 10 respondents agree that a European degree would contribute to an increased sense of European citizenship, identity, and belonging; and that it would help disseminate European values across and beyond Europe, such as academic freedom, inclusiveness, solidarity, sustainability, entrepreneurship, innovation, democracy, and the rule of law 121 . 

This would not only contribute to a more cohesive European community of citizens, but also align with the broader goal of achieving the European Education Area and accelerating the Bologna Process 122 . By incorporating exiting Bologna tools in its criteria, the European degree would boost their full implementation, promoting compatibility across European higher education systems. In doing so, it would facilitate collaboration among institutions and educational systems and foster European competitiveness on a global scale.

‘Overall, we believe that the concept of joint European degrees should be a means to strengthen the long-standing commitments stemming from the Bologna Process, such as automatic recognition, student-centred learning, mobility, internationalisation, and quality assurance’.

EURASHE (European Association of Institutions in Higher Education) – Call for Evidence.

Beyond the realm of education, European degree programmes will contribute substantially to the development of a mobile and highly skilled workforce at the European level, responding to the demands of an increasingly interconnected and dynamic global landscape.

2.2Suitability of the criteria of a European degree and stakeholders’ perspectives

2.2.1    European policy experimentation in higher education under the Erasmus+ programme

The Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation, adopted on 5 April 2022 123 , invited the Commission ‘to examine the options and necessary steps - in close cooperation with Member States, higher education institutions, student organisations and stakeholders - towards a possible joint degree based on a common set of co-created European criteria’.

The Commission was mandated, among other things, to pilot in 2022 the development and implementation under Erasmus+ of European criteria for the award of a European degree label to be issued as a complementary certificate to the qualifications obtained by students graduating from joint programmes delivered in the context of transnational cooperation between several higher education institutions.

Based on the results of this preparatory work, the Commission is to report to the European Council for further decision at each step towards a possible joint degree based on co-created European criteria, following the instruments of the Bologna Process.

In June 2022, the Commission launched ‘European policy experimentation in higher education under the Erasmus+ programme’ call for proposals for projects to actively pilot the concept and criteria of a European degree label while reflecting on ways to remove obstacles to the setting up of joint degree programmes, including by establishing a possible European degree as a type of qualification.

A set of criteria has been proposed for testing by the Commission services together with Member States (in the framework of the European Education Area Working Group on the Strategic Framework for Higher Education and the meeting with the Directors-General for Higher Education), higher education stakeholders and European Universities alliances. These European criteria for the award of a European degree label have been included in the technical annex of the Erasmus+ pilot call 124

Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects were expected to:

1.Explore and test the relevance of the co-created European criteria for establishing a label which acknowledge the European and transnational experiences in a joint transnational programme leading to a higher education qualification at European Qualifications Frameworks (EQF) levels 6, 7, 8 and the feasibility of their use.

2.Explore and recommend possible optimisation of the proposed set of criteria in view of maximising the attractiveness and potential impact of such a European degree label.

3.Elaborate proposals, in cooperation with the relevant national, regional and/or institutional authorities, aiming to facilitate the development and implementation of joint degrees in Europe. This would include proposing an approach that could be commonly agreed on for the delivery of joint degrees based on co-created European criteria by European countries at all education levels. These proposals should consider the existing instruments developed by the Bologna Process, such as the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes and reflect on the potential need for updating these tools.

Six proposals were selected 125 :

1.European degree: Advancing, Facilitation and Fostering International Collaboration in Higher Education (ED AFFICHE): This aims at proposing improvements to the proposed criteria, assessment procedure, design, and delivery of a future European degree label. It was developed by Una Europa, 4EU+, CHARM-EU, EC2U, EUCONEXUS, and Unite! The project conducted diverse surveys to relevant stakeholders to gather views on European degree criteria tailored to each target group 126 .

2.Future-proof Criteria for Innovative European Education (FOCI): This aims to evaluate various programmes according to the proposed European degree label criteria. It was developed by YUFE, EPICURE, and ECIU. The project used methodology and expert group methodology to translate the mandatory criteria into indicators to be applied to the evaluation of 13 programmes 127 .

3.ETIKÉTA Label Content and Requirements (ETIKÉTA): This aims to promote the design and test of transnational cooperation instruments based on the proposed co-created criteria for the delivery of a European degree label. It was developed by ten partners under the ETIKÉTA consortium. The methodology of the project included desk research and comparative analysis of seven joint programmes existing within the consortium of the project 128 .

4.Joint European degree Label in Engineering - Toward a European Framework for Engineering Education (JEDI): This aims to develop a prototype label for European joint degrees, co-created with 16 higher education institutions from three European Universities (EELISA, EUt+ and ENHANCE) from the perspective of engineering, technology, and science-oriented education. The project worked with diverse experts with knowledge about joint programmes in the field of engineering 129 .

5.European Degree Label Institutional Laboratory (EDLab): This aims to test the implementation of European and international joint degree programmes and the European degree label with special emphasis on Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal. It was developed by ARQUS, ENLIGHT, EUTOPIA and SEA-EU. The project conducted two surveys, 30 in-depth interviews, and 22 focus groups, with a total of 115 interviewees 130 .

6.EUROSUD Report of Quantitative & Qualitative Analysis (SMARTT): This aims at analysing, testing, and piloting the new European degree label criteria, improving the quality, and increasing the transferability of future developments of European degrees across Europe and beyond. It was developed by EUTOPIA, NEUROTECHEU, and UNITA. The project developed several methodologies including workshops with experts, interviews, focus groups, and surveys 131 .

They bring together 63 partners from 23 countries (including 22 Member States) and more than 160 associated partners from 30 countries (including 23 Member States). Work started in spring 2023 and should be completed by end April 2024.

The following section synthesises the findings of the projects available at the time of the adoption of the Staff Working Document. Firstly, it examines the feedback received on the suitability of the proposed criteria for a European degree. The section then provides details on what the process of awarding a European degree label and a European degree as a type of qualification could look like and the roles of the different actors that would be involved in it. It is concluded with an elaboration on the necessity and feasibility of a legal status for alliances of higher education institutions, such as European Universities.

2.2.2    Proposed criteria for the European degree to be tested by Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects

As part of the study commissioned by the Commission to explore the possible pathways towards a possible European degree, a survey was carried out among relevant stakeholders (higher education institutions, national quality assurance agencies and students) to find out what they expect from the future European degree. In general, the main expectations of higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies are the strengthening of transnational cooperation, student and staff mobility, innovative teaching and learning, labour market relevance and sustainability 132 .

Almost all (97.6%) institutions agreed that transnational cooperation (e.g., joint programmes, courses, modules) would be important to certify a European degree. Similarly high levels of support were expressed for embedded physical student mobility and staff mobility (virtual or in-person exchanges) - 92.8% and 90.3% respectively.

While higher education institutions considered the international dimension of future joint degree programmes to be most important, students expressed that labour market relevance (e.g., programme partnerships with industry and other organisations to offer internships) would be the main factor that would attract them to enrol in European joint degree programmes (68.8%). They also pointed to innovative teaching, learning and assessment methods and transnational cooperation between higher education institutions (65.2% and 62.7% respectively). Contrary to their institutions, students seem to be less attracted by embedded physical mobility (54.9%) and staff mobility (53.9%) 133 .

This section presents the feedback from six European policy experimentation projects on the list of initial proposed criteria for creating a European degree. It presents each criterion as originally proposed, summarises the feedback from the projects on each of them and consolidates the suggestions for adaptation. It also incorporates the findings of the mid-term working meeting with the European policy experimentation projects held in Brussels in October 2023 (hereafter referred to as the ‘mid-term meeting’). The aim of the criteria was to underpin both:

·a European degree as a label, to be awarded selectively to joint study programmes leading to a joint degree and meeting a pre-defined list of criteria agreed at the European level.

·a European degree a qualification based on common European criteria, in the sense that a joint programme would be accredited to award the qualification if it met a pre-defined list of criteria.

Proposed mandatory criteria in the context of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects

1.Higher education institutions involved in the programme delivery: the joint programme is jointly designed and delivered by at least 2 higher education institutions from at least 2 different EU Member States (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback reflected broad agreement among stakeholders while highlighting areas for clarification and expansion. There was 94.9% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with suggestions to clarify whether the EU or the European Education Area (EEA) should be considered. Additionally, they recommended increasing the number of countries to three to add multicultural and multilingual value. There was a high level of agreement among stakeholders, including civil society at 97.4%, ministries at 96%, quality assurance agencies at 95%, the labour market at 90% and students at 88% (FOCI), although there are recommendations to include more partners and to specify that most programme activities should take place in Europe (ED AFFICHE).

Benchmarking with existing joint programmes shows that this criterion is 100% in line with existing practice (ETIKETA). In addition, feedback from the mid-term meeting supported the feasibility of joint programmes involving at least two higher education institutions from two EU Member States. The general feedback suggests that this criterion may need to be clarified in guidelines to allow for the participation of more higher education institutions, including non-EU Member States, and that it should emphasise the involvement of each partner in the design and delivery of the joint programme, without requiring each student to participate in activities at each participating higher education institution.

2.Transnational joint degree recognition:

a.The joint programme leads to the award of a joint degree (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback was generally supportive, with some concerns about the difficulty of awarding joint degrees. There was 89.2% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion. However, the results of the EDLab project also suggested that the consortium agreement should state that all partners contribute to the provision of teaching/learning activities. Additionally, the joint degree should be a single document issued by or on behalf of all partner institutions, regardless of where the students have studied or the mobility path they followed (EDLab). Agreement among other stakeholders was 90% for employers, 86.6% for civil society, 84% for ministries and 80% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI). ETIKETA showed 66.7% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes.

In addition, feedback from the mid-term meeting suggested that the guidelines should include a definition of ‘joint degree’ and how this criterion could be applied in cases where only one part of a consortium could award a joint degree, while other partners could still award their own. Similarly, the ED AFFICHE project advocated a precise definition of a joint degree and a greater emphasis on the added value it brings to students and their career prospects.

b.Transnational joint co-supervision and co-evaluation of dissertations: dissertations are co-evaluated by supervisors or a committee with members from at least 2 different institutions located in 2 different countries (European Qualifications Frameworks 8).

There was 79.8% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with proposals to include co-supervision in addition to co-evaluation, even though some expressed complexity from a legislative perspective and recommended making it optional (EDLab). Additionally, the results of the EDLab project suggested enhancing the criterion to include European Qualifications Frameworks (EQF) 7 (masters level) and specifying this criterion in a consortium agreement or other related consortium documents. There was a particularly high level of agreement among other stakeholders, with ministries and quality assurance agencies at 100%, students and civil society at 97.4% and the labour market at 90% (FOCI).

3.Transparency of the learning outcomes:

a.The joint programme is described in ECTS (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

In general, the feedback reflected robust agreement among stakeholders, while acknowledging some challenges. There was an agreement of 92.8% among higher education institutions on this criterion, with some noting the potential difficulty in measuring certain activities with ECTS (EDLab). Further, the results of the EDLab project suggested encouraging alignment with existing European Higher Education Area (EHEA) tools through the recommendation of the use of the ECTS Users Guide to ensure that curricular design is based on achieving intended learning outcomes.

The agreement across other stakeholders was high, with students at 96%, quality assurance agencies at 95%, civil society at 93.4%, ministries at 92%, and the labour market at 90% (FOCI). There is a 95.2% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes (ETIKETA). The JEDI project also emphasised that the evaluation of learning outcomes should be mandatory (currently it is mandatory in 61% of the JEDI sample). The feedback also suggested the need to make learning outcomes more transparent by making them more visible to candidates and employers (SMARTT).

The ED AFFICHE project recommended a more explicit and comprehensible explanation of criterion 3a (e.g. by adding indicators to assess it). The earlier study 134 had already identified curriculum flexibility and programme length as potential obstacles to the adaptation of joint programmes to existing national requirements.

b.Diploma supplement: a joint Diploma Supplement is issued to the student at the end of the joint study programme (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback showed a high level of agreement among stakeholders, highlighting the importance of a joint diploma supplement. There was 89.2% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion. Some suggested that it should be issued on request rather than automatically. Others were concerned about difficulties with legal and technical barriers in some countries and pointed to the need for a European template for the Diploma Supplement (EDLab). In addition, the EDLab project suggested clarifying that a single joint diploma supplement is issued to all graduates using an agreed model and adapted to the joint nature of the programme.

Agreement among the remaining stakeholders was high, with civil society at 100%, ministries and students at 96%, and quality assurance agencies at 95%, although labour market agreement is at 66.6% (FOCI). There is a 78.9% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes (ETIKETA) and feedback collected during the mid-term meeting supported the importance of issuing a joint Diploma Supplement, with an open question on whether this should be done on request. Information on the case of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters shows that 61% of them issue a joint Diploma Supplement, indicating its feasibility and importance for the implementation of a European degree.

4.Quality assurance arrangements: internal and external quality assurance is conducted in accordance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). The programme, the study field or the institutions are accredited/evaluated by an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR). If external quality assurance is required at the programme level in the countries involved, the transnational programme should be accredited/evaluated preferably using the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

There was 87% agreement on this criterion among higher education institutions, with some concerns expressed about the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) being a barrier for countries such as Italy and the potential limitation that the European Approach would bring to the label due to its scarce use. Furthermore, the results of the EDLab project recommended splitting criterion 4 into two to emphasise the institutional/study and programme levels.

The level of agreement by other stakeholders was high, with quality assurance agencies and civil society at 100%, ministries at 98%, the labour market at 85%, and students at 97.5% (FOCI). Alignment with existing practices in joint programmes is 76.3% (ETIKETA). The ED AFFICHE project highlighted the need for joint European programmes to be subject to evaluation at the European level as a strategy to increase their value.

The feedback collected during the mid-term meeting suggested that the guidelines should include a clarification of conditions and exceptions. The overall feedback emphasised that programmes, fields of study or institutions should be accredited/evaluated by an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) using the ESG, and where external quality assurance at programme level is required, the European Approach should be used.

5.Joint arrangements for the joint programme: the higher education institutions involved have joint policies for admission, selection, supervision, monitoring, assessment, and recognition procedures for the joint study programme (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

84.2% of higher education institutions agreed with this criterion. Some suggested that the arrangements should be set in the consortium agreement and that each process could be considered separately, allowing for more flexibility. They also suggested that the term ‘arrangements’ is preferable to ‘policies’ and that breaking down the criteria into several smaller items would enable to better define expectations (EDLab). The results of the EDLab project also suggested splitting the criterion into two to ensure arrangements at the decision-making and programme management levels.

The agreement among other stakeholders was students at 90%, ministries at 84%, labour market and civil society at 80%, and quality assurance agencies at 75% (FOCI). There was a 92.1% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes (ETIKETA). The ED AFFICHE project recommended the creation of a guidance document for the criterion on how to regulate policies within consortium agreements, possibly with a template that could be used as this criterion was controversial among stakeholders.

The feedback collected during the mid-term meeting emphasised that criterion 5 was an existing practice within the European Approach and Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters, which already incorporated joint policies for joint programmes. In addition, it was suggested to reformulate it as: ‘HEIs involved have set a consortium agreement that defines joint arrangements for admission, selection, supervision, monitoring, assessment, and recognition procedures for the joint study programme. The joint programme and its arrangements are designed and delivered by engaging and consulting student representatives and other stakeholders.’

6.Transnational campus access to services: the joint programme provides enrolled students, regardless of their location, with seamless and free access to the participating higher education institution services such as e.g. Information technology (IT) services, shared infrastructure, and facilities, (online) library services, faculty development and support, academic guidance and psychological counselling, career advice/mentoring, alumni systems (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

There was 93.5% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with some questions about the flexibility of the ‘mandatory’ services and the meaning of ‘seamless and free’, which could be better expressed as ‘offering the same conditions as other students’ or ‘students have access to services in all participating higher education institutions under the same conditions as all enrolled students’. This could imply the possibility of registering students in all partner institutions offering the programme (EDLab).

The agreement across the different stakeholders was 100% for students, 95% for ministries and quality assurance agencies, 86.6% for civil society and 80% for the labour market (FOCI). There was 86.8% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes.

The feedback collected during the mid-term meeting indicated that there would be practical barriers related to infrastructure and systems, as not all services can be provided ‘regardless of location’. Therefore, a list of services, guidelines and examples was needed. In addition, the ED AFFICHE project recommended the inclusion of more specific elements such as non-negotiable services such as health and welfare support.

7.Flexible and embedded student mobility arrangements:

a.The joint programme includes at least 1 period of student physical mobility at another partner institution of at least 30 ECTS (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback showed a consensus among stakeholders, with reflections on inclusivity and suggestions for improving mobility opportunities. There was 85.6% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with some considering that 30 ECTS is a low requirement for European Qualifications Frameworks (EQF) 6. They also suggested considering exceptions for students who could not undertake physical mobility by including virtual and blended mobility and making it the result of several shorter mobility periods (EDLab). In addition, the results of the EDLab project also suggested splitting criterion into two according to the European Qualifications Frameworks (EQF) level.

Stakeholder agreement was 96% for students, 88% for ministries, 86.6% for civil society, 80% for the labour market and 65% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI). The ED AFFICHE project recommended specifying that the lack of physical attendance does not prevent a university from awarding a joint degree. Feedback suggested that one mobility period should be preferred to two (JEDI). Feedback from the mid-term meeting suggested adding examples of possible activities to the guidelines, such as teaching activities, international events, conferences, joint research projects and publications with researchers from partner institutions.

b.Flexible PhD student mobility and transnational cooperation: the joint programme includes a total of at least 6 months of physical mobility at another partner institution (including secondment). In addition to physical mobility, the joint programme includes opportunities for doctoral candidates to participate in one or more of these activities at another partner institution: teaching activities, international events, international conferences, joint research scientific projects between partner institutions, and joint research publications with researchers from partner institutions (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback revealed suggestions for improving mobility opportunities. There was a 73.4% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with a recommendation to include other types of mobility to cater for doctoral students with family responsibilities and to make additional mobility opportunities optional rather than a minimum requirement. They proposed to clarify the wording regarding ‘including secondments’, which implies that secondments count as mobility (EDLab). Stakeholder agreement was 100% for students, 92% for ministries, 86.6% for civil society, 75% for the labour market and 53.4% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI).

Feedback from the mid-term meeting indicated that the guidelines should include examples of possible activities for doctoral students, such as teaching activities, international events, conferences, joint research projects and publications with researchers from partner institutions.

8.Multilingualism: during the joint programme, each student is exposed to at least 2 different EU official languages, language classes excluded. Exposure to EU official languages can take place in active and/or passive use of language(s), at any level in teaching and/or learning activities, examinations, research activities, professional or civic engagement activities and during mobility periods, including by going on mobility to a country where a different EU official language is predominantly used in daily life (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback revealed concerns about the clarity of the criterion. There was 64% agreement among higher education institutions with this criterion. In particular, the term ‘exposure’ was deemed vague. Furthermore, the need to include language classes in the criterion was mentioned and the development of guidance on how to proceed when there is mobility between countries that share the same language (EDLab). It was also recommended to simplify the criterion offering space to a wide range of ‘exposures’.

Stakeholder agreement was 88% for students, 66.6% for the labour market, 60% for ministries, 53.4% for civil society and 30% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI). Most of the higher education institutions participating in ETIKETA supported the preference for ‘exposure’ to only two different official EU languages.

Feedback from the mid-term meeting indicated that excluding language courses in this criterion would make it more challenging and require more effort from applicants in terms of programme design and/or provision of opportunities outside the formal curriculum. The ED AFFICHE project recommended that criterion 8 might be merged with optional criterion 2.

The European policy experimentation projects also suggested the need to explain in the guidelines that exposure to EU official languages can take place actively and/or passively at any level, in teaching and/or learning activities, examinations, research activities, professional or civic engagement activities, and during mobility periods, including mobility to a country where another EU official language is predominantly used in daily life, including language classes.

9.Innovative learning approaches: the joint programme includes embedded interdisciplinary and/or intersectoral components using student-centred and/or challenged-based approaches (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback on criterion 9 showed a consensus on the need for clarity and flexibility. There was 72.7% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with suggestions to avoid prescribing specific methodologies and recognition that the criterion is not easily quantifiable (EDLab). In addition, the results of the EDLab project suggested transforming the criterion into a category ‘learning approaches’, consisting of four criteria relating to student participation in the learning process and its assessment, intersectoral components or activities, dissertations and policies for assessment, recognition and internship regulations.

Agreement among stakeholders was 92% for students, 90% for the labour market, 84% for ministries, 73.4% for quality assurance agencies and 53.4% for civil society (FOCI). The ED AFFICHE project highlighted the need to introduce some indicators or guidelines for this criterion, as higher education institutions may feel that it will condition teaching.

The feedback from the mid-term meeting showed that the criterion is not clear, suggesting a need for refinement, such as changing ‘innovative’ to ‘student-centred’. The focus on ‘challenge-based’ methods may inadvertently exclude the potential for other and new, emerging pedagogies.

10.Graduate outcomes monitoring: the joint programme has a system to monitor graduate outcomes. This system can be at the level of the programme or institutional level(s). If possible, the content is aligned with the survey content of EUROGRADUATE (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

Similar to some of the criteria above, the feedback on this criterion indicated the need for clearer terminology and the importance of a well-defined graduate tracking system. There was 65% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with suggestions to replace the term ‘graduate outcomes’ with ‘tracking system’ and to remove the wording ‘if possible’. They also highlighted potential challenges related to the fact that the EUROGRADUATE system was not widely known, but it was advisable to include this recommendation (EDLab).

The level of agreement among stakeholders was 92% for students, 90% for quality assurance agencies, 86.6% for the labour market, 80% for ministries and 53.4% for civil society (FOCI). The benchmark with existing joint programmes showed an alignment of 84.2% (ETIKETA). The ED AFFICHE project proposed the development of a guide to monitoring graduate outcomes, highlighting those most relevant to the sustained success of joint programmes. The feedback from the mid-term meeting suggested replacing ‘graduate outcomes’ with ‘graduate tracking’ to avoid confusion and rewording as ‘The joint programme has a graduate tracking system’.

11.Inclusiveness and sustainability:

a.The joint programme commits to wide participation through socially and geographically inclusive admission through tailored measures for all categories of disadvantaged students (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

There was 87% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with a call for clarification on the categories of ‘disadvantaged’ students and concerns about the need for sufficient funding for some specific degrees that may not be open to all (EDLab). They also suggested removing the term ‘all categories’ because it raised concerns about its feasibility and including the concepts of diversity and support measures.

Stakeholder agreement was 96% for students, 92% for ministries, 90% for the labour market, 85% for quality assurance agencies, and 73.4% for civil society (FOCI). The benchmark with existing joint programmes showed an alignment of 92.1% (ETIKETA). The feedback collected during the mid-term meeting suggests that the guidelines could include good practices, examples of categories of disadvantaged students (Erasmus+ categories) and specific procedures for students to report discrimination or other unfair treatment.

b.Compliance with the European Charter for Researchers, Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) Green Charter: The joint programme commits to respect the principles of the European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers and commits to the principles of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) Green Charter (European Qualifications Frameworks 8).

73.4% of higher education institutions agreed with this criterion (EDLab). Further, the EDLab project results suggested splitting the criterion into three. The level of agreement among stakeholders was 95% for students, 93.4% for quality assurance agencies, 88% for ministries, 86.6% for the labour market and 80% for civil society (FOCI). Benchmarking with existing joint programmes showed 88.8% alignment (ETIKETA). The feedback from the mid-term meeting suggested that compliance with the above-mentioned charters was feasible.

Proposed optional criteria in the context of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects

1.Alternative learning formats for transnational learning: in addition to physical mobility, the joint programme includes additional formats of transnational learning activities with partner higher education institutions (e.g. online or blended, in the format of regular or intensive courses, summer/winter schools) (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7).

Feedback on optional criterion 1 highlighted suggestions to merge it with criterion 7. There was 77.7% agreement among higher education institutions on this optional criterion, with suggestions to keep it optional or to merge it with criterion 7 as a complement to physical mobility. It is also suggested to change the wording to: ‘In addition to physical mobility, the joint programme offers additional formats of transnational learning activities’ (EDLab). This criterion was 76.3% consistent with existing joint programmes (ETIKETA).

2.Language classes: the joint programme offers the possibility to take language classes to enhance the command of multiple European languages (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

Feedback on optional criterion 2 pointed to proposals to merge it with criterion 8. Feedback on criterion 2 showed 85.7% agreement among higher education institutions. They suggested to not impose it but to offer it when relevant. They also expressed that this could make reference to extracurricular activities, and it should not be considered the responsibility of a joint programme (EDLab). Agreement among stakeholders was 84% for students, 80% for ministries, 73.4% for the labour market and civil society, and 70% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI).

3.Cooperation with the labour market: the joint programme supports future labour market needs and/or includes cooperation with businesses and sectors in its curriculum (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

There were different levels of agreement between stakeholders on this criterion. There was 79.1% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with the observation that the relevance of the criterion may depend on the field of study and should also cover the needs of careers in academia and basic research. However, they also mentioned this criterion is part of the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes and as such should be mandatory, at least for European Qualifications Frameworks (EQF) 6 and 7 (EDLab).

The level of agreement among other stakeholders was 95% for the labour market, 92% for ministries, 86.6% for civil society and 70% for quality assurance agencies and students (FOCI). There was 92.1% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes (ETIKETA). The ED AFFICHE project recommended that optional criteria be added to the list of mandatory criteria.

Participants in the mid-term meeting noted that alignment with labour market needs should be mandatory, but that it is difficult to assess in concrete terms. They also suggested that it should be strengthened through cooperation with business and/or industry and/or civil society and/or the public sector.

4.Work-based learning opportunities: the joint programme provides opportunities for international professional internships/work-based learning recognised through the award of ECTS (European Qualifications Frameworks 7, 8).

The feedback showed different perspectives on its relevance and implementation among different stakeholders. There was 78.4% agreement among higher education institutions with this criterion, with suggestions that it may not be relevant for all fields, or even unnecessary, and should remain optional. They also suggested that the term ‘international’ should be clarified to mean different from the country of origin or the countries in which the programme is offered. Further, they suggested including this optional criterion in the mandatory criterion 9 (EDLab).

The level of agreement among other stakeholders is 93.4% for the labour market, 84% for students, 80% for ministries, 73.4% for civil society and 70% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI). There is 47.3% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes (ETIKETA). Notably, 83.3% of higher education institutions participating in the JEDI project would include mandatory requirements for exposure to internships. The ED AFFICHE project recommended that optional criterion 4 be added to the list of mandatory criteria.

Participants in the mid-term meeting expressed different opinions, with some in favour of compulsory international placements, while others found it challenging, particularly depending on the level of employment in the field of study and the legal framework for traineeships.

5.Career development plan: the joint programme includes a career development plan devised with the candidate and/or exposure to the non-academic sector (such as internships, seminars, and networking) (European Qualifications Frameworks 8).

The feedback on optional criterion 5 showed different opinions on its implementation. There was 66.9% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with the suggestion that such plans were usually offered at the institutional level rather than within the programme (EDLab). The ED AFFICHE project recommended that this criterion be consolidated with similar mandatory ones and made compulsory, as it underlines the capacity of the joint programme to provide career development services. The level of agreement between stakeholders varied, with ministries at 90%, civil society at 80%, the labour market at 73.4%, students at 66.6% and quality assurance agencies at 60% (FOCI).

6.Environmental and sustainability measures: the joint programme includes components and actions related to environmental sustainability and implements measures to minimise the environmental footprint of its activities (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

There was 70.5% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with suggestions that these measures should be implemented at institutional rather than programme level and that quantification or evaluation may be difficult. They also pointed out that environmental sustainability should be a focus in all programmes and therefore it should not be a determining factor in awarding the European degree. In addition, there was a potential contradiction regarding the promotion of physical mobility (EDLab).

The agreement among stakeholders was 85% for the labour market and students, 80% for ministries, 65% for quality assurance agencies and 53.4% for civil society (FOCI). There is 86.8% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes (ETIKETA). The ED AFFICHE project recommended the development of a guide at the European level to facilitate a common understanding of the criterion. Participants in the mid-term meeting highlighted the importance of environmental sustainability, which could be further refined using environmental sustainability frameworks.

7.Digital skills development: the joint programme includes components and actions related to the development of high-level digital skills of students, it offers high-quality digital education content, as well as assessment of student skills (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

The feedback showed different perspectives. There was 74.1% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with recommendations to assess high-level and high-quality digital skills against clear indicators, and to emphasise the importance of digital skills for all programmes rather than as a distinctive feature of a European degree. They also highlighted the need for clarification of the terms ‘high level’, ‘as well as (digital) assessment of student (digital) skills’ and ‘high-quality digital education content’ (EDLab).

The consensus among stakeholders was 80% for civil society, 73.4% for the labour market, 76% for students and 50% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI). Alignment with existing practices in joint programmes is 92.1%. The ED AFFICHE project recommended that a guide be drawn up at the European level to guide on how to achieve this objective. Participants in the mid-term meeting highlighted the importance of refining the criterion on digital literacy with the possibility of using DigComp to assess digital literacy.

8.Democratic values and social engagement: the joint programme offers the possibility for students to participate in activities promoting democratic values and addressing societal needs of the local community(ies), including volunteering, and to receive ECTS for it (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

Feedback showed mixed opinions, highlighting concerns about the allocation of ECTS. There was 57.9% agreement among higher education institutions on this criterion, with some concerns about the feasibility of awarding ECTS for activities promoting democratic values and societal engagement due to the complexity of organising and assessing these activities (EDLab). The EDLab project also suggested making this criterion mandatory.

Across all stakeholders there was 86.6% agreement for civil society, 85% for the labour market, 70% for students and 55% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI). There is 26.3% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes. Participants in the mid-term review event expressed divergent views, with some arguing that this criterion should be combined with traineeships and made mandatory, while others argued that the award of ECTS is particularly challenging for this type of activity. Some participants pointed out that the award of ECTS does not necessarily need to be integrated into curricula.

9.Programme promotion and visibility: The higher education institutions offering the joint study programme conduct joint promotion and awareness-raising activities to ensure visibility of the joint programme and provide the necessary information about it for students and other relevant stakeholders such as future employers (European Qualifications Frameworks 6, 7, 8).

There was a fairly high level of agreement (85.3%) on this criterion among higher education institutions (EDLab). The EDLab project proposed to make this optional criterion mandatory by including it in mandatory criteria 5 and/or 9 and splitting it into two, highlighting the importance of providing the necessary information for students and other relevant stakeholders such as future employers.

Across all stakeholders, the agreement was 84% for ministries, 80% for civil society, 75% for students, 66.6% for the labour market and 50% for quality assurance agencies (FOCI). There was 76.3% alignment with existing practices in joint programmes (ETIKETA). Some higher education institutions are in favour of increasing the visibility and awareness of the criterion, possibly moving it from optional to mandatory (SMARTT). The ED AFFICHE project recommended that the Commission should take the lead in promoting the concept of a European degree internationally. Participants in the mid-term meeting agreed that joint programmes by their nature carry out joint promotional activities, making this criterion potentially redundant.

Suggested additional criteria

While there was a general agreement among the projects that criteria should not be too numerous, some projects explored the added value of potential new ones in early phases of their work to strengthen the availability of opportunities for staff, inclusion of students in decision making processes and feedback mechanisms, openness to flexible units of learning such as micro-credentials and flexible learning pathways.

‘The scope of the initiative needs to be expanded to include other models of higher education in addition to full programmes. This is crucial in a higher education that is increasingly moving towards more innovative and flexible models of educational provision (e.g. micro-credentials) and flexible learning pathways’.

FOCI consortium (composed of eight universities from seven countries: Belgium, Croatia, France, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, and the Netherlands) – Call for Evidence.

Feasibility of the tested criteria in the context of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects

Alongside the suitability of the criteria developed, there is also the question of their feasibility. This is closely correlated with the obstacles and challenges outlined in the previous section, which would need to be overcome in order to pave the way for European degrees to be awarded. Firstly, most of the higher education institutions consulted in the study that preceded the adoption of this document acknowledge that it would be either demanding or very demanding to award joint degrees to graduates of joint European programmes 135 . This view was shared by the national authorities, who admitted that the awarding of joint degrees is not fully permitted in all countries 136 .

Similar serious difficulties exist in the area of quality assurance. Requiring a review by an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) from another country or using the European Approach may not be feasible across Europe. The European Approach is not currently available in all countries and not all countries allow their higher education institutions to freely choose an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education. Problems are more likely to arise in countries where the European Approach is not available, where it is not possible to choose an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education, and where there is no national agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education 137 .

Table 2.1: Availability of the European Approach and the option to choose an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR)

European Approach is available

European Approach is partly available

European Approach is not available

Can choose an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) from another country.

Belgium-FL, Belgium-FR, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Romania, Finland

Germany, Cyprus

Latvia, Slovakia

Can choose an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) from another country under certain conditions.

Denmark, Malta, the Netherlands

Estonia*, France*, Luxembourg, Portugal*

Czechia**, Greece**

Cannot choose an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) from another country.

-

Ireland*, Slovenia*

Croatia*, Sweden*

Information on the ability to choose an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) from another country is not available.

-

-

Italy**

* National agency is registered with the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).
** There is no national agency
 registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).

Source: European Commission, Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, Burneikaitė, G., Pocius, D., Potapova, E. et al., The road towards a possible joint European degree – Identifying opportunities and investigating the impact and feasibility of different approaches – Final report, Publications Office of the European Union, 2023,  https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2766/945147

Other feasibility concerns relate to the description of a joint programme in ECTS credits and the commitment to provide students with seamless and free access to services such as Information Technology (IT) services, shared infrastructure and facilities, (online) library services, faculty development and support, academic and psychological counselling, career guidance and monitoring, and alumni systems. Stakeholders report that some national requirements on curriculum and programme length may hamper the definition of programmes in terms of ECTS credits. In addition, the coordination and interconnection of universities’ digital infrastructures may hinder the establishment of transnational campuses.

Some of the criteria may require a greater effort on the part of the institutions to meet (in particular multilingualism and interdisciplinarity), but as they are now formulated, they still seem quite achievable. There is also a group of criteria that can be achieved quite easily, as they are already an integral part of joint degree programmes. These are the required number of participating higher education institutions, joint policies for the joint programmes, the issuing of a diploma supplement, embedded student mobility, and inclusiveness and sustainability.

Although sometimes challenging to meet, higher education institutions expressed their willingness to invest a significant amount of time in complying with the European degree criteria. More than half of the respondents to the survey indicated that they would be willing to spend more than six months developing a new programme in line with the co-created criteria 138 . 45% of the higher education institutions surveyed would spend at least 10 working days adapting their programmes to the European degree as a qualification, while a third would do the same for the label 139 .

‘We intend the European degree as a seal of quality making our degrees more attractive on a global level. The set of common criteria associated with the European degree will serve as a guidance for the benefit of all Higher Education Institutions’.

UNITA (alliance of European research universities spanning France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine) – Call for Evidence.

General perspectives

From a general perspective, most of the feedback collected suggests that the proposed criteria seemed to be fit for purpose, provided that they come with clearer definition and guidelines.

The projects proposed several recommendations for smoother implementation of the European degrees. First, restructuring the criteria to enhance clarity, drawing inspiration from the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) and the European Approach for the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes (European Approach). Second, use only mandatory criteria to avoid confusion regarding the meaning of optional, additional, or voluntary criteria. Third, it was clear for all projects that the criteria should be accompanied by a glossary of terminology and extensive guidelines explaining all basic concepts and providing examples of ways to comply.

In addition, suggestions to expand the scope of the European degree to micro-credentials and to EQF level 5 programmes were also voiced and supported by most projects. It was suggested to work on an adapted list of criteria that could be applied to such learning experiences due to their differences with EQF levels 6, 7 and 8 joint programmes. Such an activity could take place in the framework of European degree policy labs, when designing guidelines for the implementation of the European degree.

A revised list of criteria incorporating all gathered input was produced in February 2024 and is presented here below and in Annex II of this Staff Working Document.

2.2.3    Revised list of criteria for a European degree

Taking into account all feedback collected from the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects and facilitating direct exchanges between the projects and the European Commission, a list of revised criteria for the European was produced to serve as blueprint for the development of a European degree, as a label or as a qualification and for the development of guidelines for its implementation.

The criteria are divided in 3 different clusters: Transnational programme organisation and management, learning experience and European values.

Cluster 1: Transnational programme organisation and management

1. Higher education institutions involved:

The joint programme is offered by at least 2 higher education institutions from at least 2 different EU Member States. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

While this criterion defines the fact that any European degree must involve several institutions from different countries, the opportunity to raise the minimum of 2 to 3 different institutions from 3 different countries and to expand the geographical scope beyond the EU was discussed by the different projects. Existing practices under Erasmus+ funding schemes (Erasmus Mundus, MSCA) and the mandate of European institutions defined the scope of the criteria without ruling out potential expansion should political decisions be taken to expand the scope and ambition of a European degree.

The future guidelines should precise that these are the minimum requirements. Beyond this minimum, there are no restrictions on the number of higher education institutions or the countries they are from, within or beyond the EU.

2. Transnational joint degree delivery:

The joint programme is jointly designed and jointly delivered by all the higher education institutions involved. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

The joint nature of the programme is the very basis of a joint degree. Students should experience the programme as a single joint whole, not as separate parts provided by different partner institution and put together artificially to form a whole.

The future guidelines should define that compliance with such a criterion should be shown through agreement and alignment (specified in the consortium agreement or in other related joint documents) among the partners on the format and content of the programme, with jointly designed learning outcomes at programme level as a minimum and demonstrating that all partners contribute to teaching and/or the provision of other learning activities.

The joint programme leads to the award of a joint degree. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

A joint degree is a basic element to reflect the joint nature of the programme it is also logical for a European degree to not be composed of several and multiple degrees as none of them alone could claim to be a European degree. It is also aligned with Bologna commitments to facilitate the delivery of joint degrees across the EHEA.

The future guidelines should define that joint degrees are understood as a single document awarded by higher education institutions offering the joint programme and nationally acknowledged as the recognised award of the joint programme, in line with the definition adopted in the European approach for quality assurance of joint programmes.

A joint diploma supplement is issued to students. (EQF levels 6 and 7)

The diploma supplement is an important tool for recognition of qualifications. A joint diploma supplement is necessary to reflect the joint nature of the programme and that students can have one document to share instead of several ones covering only parts of the learning experience.

The guidelines to be developed should indicate that a joint diploma supplement clearly describe all parts of the degree programme and contain relevant information on the type and level of qualification awarded; the institutions that issued the qualification; the content of the course and the results gained, the institutions in which the student has earned the different parts of the degree and details of the national education systems.

The joint programme describes the learning outcomes and credits in line with the ECTS Users Guide. (EQF levels 6 and 7)

This criterion encourages alignment with existing EHEA tools and to ensure that curricular design is based on reaching intended learning outcomes.

3. Joint arrangements for the joint programme

The joint programme has joint policies, procedures and/or arrangements defining curriculum planning and delivery, as well as all organisational and administrative matters.

Students’ representatives are part of the decision-making process to define the joint policies and procedures and/or arrangements. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

A joint programme should have joint structures to ensure that joint policies, procedures and arrangements are agreed on, implemented and monitored.

The future guidelines should precise that these policies, procedures and arrangements should cover at least policies related to admission, selection, supervision, progression, monitoring, assessment, degree awarding and recognition as well as any other policy or arrangement that would be deemed necessary for a European degree programme.

The guidelines should precise that this may be done through joint committees and boards, and may be programme specific or, for example, set up at inter-institutional or alliance levels.

The guidelines should also provide guidance on the inclusion of student’s representatives in the decision-making process with examples of good practices.

4. Quality assurance arrangements

Internal and external Quality Assurance is conducted in accordance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). The higher education institutions, the study field or the programme are evaluated by an EQAR registered agency. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

This criterion promotes alignment with existing EHEA tools while respecting the diversity of accreditation and quality assurance systems and the competence of the Member States.

The future guidelines will support accreditation and evaluation agencies to integrate an evaluation of compliance with the criteria of a European degree within their existing processes and procedures.

5. Graduate-tracking

The joint programme monitors graduates through a graduate tracking system. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

Monitoring graduates’ outcomes is important for quality assurance purposes, to assess the relevance of a programme, for promotion of the programme, build an alumni network among other things.

The guidelines will precise that such a system can be at programme level or at institutional level as long as it is adapted to the characteristics of such a transnational programme, making use of existing tools wherever possible.

Cluster 2: Learning experience

6. Student-centred learning

The joint programme is designed and continuously enhanced and delivered in a way that encourages students to take an active role in the learning process. Assessment of students reflects this approach. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

This criterion builds on the ESG (1.3 - Student-centred learning, teaching and assessment) to stress the importance of implementing student-centred learning, teaching and assessment.

The guidelines should link this criterion with compliance with the ESG and indicates a set of indicators that can be used as well as provide examples of good practices.

 

7. Interdisciplinarity

The joint programme includes embedded interdisciplinarity components. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

This criterion promotes the inclusion of some element of inter-disciplinarity in the curricula. This does not make it compulsory for every programme to be fully inter-disciplinary but to allow for an inter-disciplinary dimension in the curricula (through one or several courses, modules, etc)

The guidelines will further define these guidance in full respect of academic freedom and diversity of fields and disciplines.

8. Labour market relevance

The joint programme aligns with labour market requirements by incorporating intersectoral components or activities and the development of transversal skills. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

This criterion encompasses elements such as cooperation with other sectors (businesses, industries, civil society, the public sector, etc.), traineeships and any other activity that can be used to for students to develop transversal skills and ensure the labour market relevance of the programme.

The guidelines will provide further guidance on indicators and good practices.

9. Digital skills

The joint programme includes components and actions related to the development of advanced digital skills of students, tailored to the capacities and circumstances of the joint programme, ensuring alignment with its scope and scholarly focus. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

Digital skills are skills that are relevant in all fields and disciplines. This criterion ensures that students are prepared to embrace the digital transition by incorporating components and actions for the development of digital skills. This can be achieved through different means.

The guidelines will provide indicators and examples of components and actions to comply with such a criteria, keeping in mind the need for a flexible and proportionate approach, aligned with the scope and the focus of each programme.

10. Transnational campus – access to services

The programme has joint policies for students and staff to have access to relevant services in all participating higher education institutions in equivalent conditions as all enrolled students and local staff. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

All students of a joint programme should have equal access to services of participation institutions regardless of the fact they are physically present in the institution or not. The criterion also stress the importance for staff of joint programmes to have access to services of the different institutions.

The guidelines will provide additional guidance on the kind of services that are deemed relevant in such contexts as well as examples of series of services that can be provided.

11. Flexible and embedded student mobility

The joint programme offers deep intercultural experience, including a minimum of 1 period of student physical mobility (that can be split in several stays) at another or several partner institution(s) representing overall at least 60 ECTS at EQF 6 level and 30 ECTS at EQF 7 level.

The joint programme has a policy offering alternatives for students who are unable to travel.

(EQF levels 6 and 7)

Mobility is at the core of the vast majority of joint programme. It is also one fundamental aspect of European integration and a characteristic of the european higher education area. This criterion ensures that students are provided with opportunities to be mobile between the institutions offering the joint programme for a minimum of 60 ECTS at Bachelor’s level and 30 ECTS at Master’s level.

The guideline will precise that such minimum requirements do not prevent the offering of more mobility opportunities and that they do not necessarily entail the completion of rigid blocks of mobility but allow for the stacking of several smaller periods of mobility.

The joint programme offers deep intercultural experience, including a total of at least 6 months of physical mobility at another or several partner institution(s).

The joint programme has a policy offering alternatives for students who are unable to travel.

(EQF level 8)

This criterion reflects the previous one, taking into account the need to distinguish Doctoral level from other levels.

12. Co-evaluation and co-supervision for dissertations

Dissertations are supervised by at least 2 supervisors and co-evaluated by co-supervisors or a committee with members from at least 2 different institutions located in 2 different countries. (EQF level 8)

Co-evaluation and co-supervision ensures a true joint doctoral experience. It is an important element promoted by the MSCA action.

The guidelines will provide indicators and further details on how compliance with such a criteria can be assessed.

Cluster 3: European values

13. Democratic values

The joint programme’s joint policies promote and adhere to democratic values. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

This criterion is proposed as a minimum requirement due to the important role of education in strengthening common European values and democratic citizenship.

The guidelines will support the assessment of compliance respect for democracy reflected in the joint programme’s policies and procedures. Several reference documents can be used as points of reference for this purpose such as the Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture developed by the Council of Europe, the Erasmus+ Charter for Higher Education and the European Charter for Fundamental rights as examples.

14. Multilingualism

During the joint programme, each student is exposed to at least 2 different EU languages. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

Multilingualism is one of the core values of the European project and is highly valued by employers and students. This criterion promotes an exposure to multilingualism as part of the programme.

The guidelines will define how this exposure can take place (language classes, courses or modules taught in a different language than the rest of the curricula, etc.)

15. Inclusiveness

The joint programme commits to wide participation by fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion and by adopting tailored measures to support students and staff with less opportunities. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

This criterion stressed the importance for European degree programmes to be an inclusive opportunity for all, which is a core concern of students. Target measures to support inclusion of disadvantaged students but also staff will support inclusive policies fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The guideline will indicate indicators and guidance to measure this criterion. Such arrangements should be reflected in the admission policies and processes and detailed in detailed in the consortium agreement or in other related joint document(s).

The joint programme commits to respect the principles of the European Charter for Researchers. (EQF level 8)

These well-established principles are considered key to ensure inclusive practices in doctoral programmes.

The guidelines will indicate that clear reference should be made in the consortium agreement or in other related joint documents to the commitment to respect the principles mentioned, and processes and policies are place to ensure this alignment.

16. Green transition

The joint programme has policies and actions related to environmental sustainability and implements measures to minimise the environmental footprint of its activities. (EQF levels 6, 7 and 8)

This criterion expresses the commitment to promote environmental sustainability. The criterion is open enough to cover a wide range of activities.

The guidelines will describe what kind of measures can reflect such commitment, keeping in mind the necessity to respect the diversity of contexts and programmes.

MSCA Green Charter promotes the sustainable implementation of research activities. This is in line with the goals of the European Green Deal, which aims to make Europe’s economy sustainable.

The guidelines will refer to the fact that such commitment should be reflected in the joint policies and arrangements and that students and staff should be informed about these principles.

2.2.4     Award process and actors

Stakeholder feedback from available pilot project outputs on the added value of a European degree as a label or a type of qualification

Stakeholders concurred that a label alone has no legal value, and therefore may not achieve national recognition or regulatory simplification, limiting its added value. In contrast, European degrees are perceived as more influential due to their regulatory clarity and wider understanding among stakeholders. There was a common understanding that a European degree would be more impactful than a label.

‘As long as the Common European Degree is only a supplement to the individual degrees of the universities (be it a single, double or joint degree), it has little value’.

Bielefeld University (Germany) – Call for Evidence.

While there is overall agreement on the degree being the ultimate objective, questions about the feasibility and timeline for realising this goal were expressed. The introduction of a label faces minimal legal hurdles, whereas progress towards a European degree will require changes in regulatory frameworks at the national and institutional levels, as well as political commitment and advocacy. The European policy experimentation projects highlighted possible difficulties with national accreditation systems, and the consulted quality assurance agencies expressed scepticism regarding this pathway.

Acknowledging these challenges, many European policy experimentation projects also agreed that the introduction of the European degree as a label could support systems to move towards degrees fully integrated into national legislation. The label could act as a catalyst by demonstrating the potential of joint degrees. This phased approach does not imply postponing the European degree until all countries have made the necessary legislative changes. Instead, the two options could coexist: the label could be introduced while countries begin to incorporate the European degree into their national legislation. In addition, the label could remain an alternative in scenarios where a European degree would be more challenging, such as in regulated professions.

While the introduction of a European degree would require changes to legislation in some countries, the European policy experimentation projects unanimously recognised the importance of respecting national competencies in education. The awarding of accredited joint degrees aims to enhance the attractiveness of European education, but it is essential that this initiative does not undermine or compete with existing national qualifications systems and standard educational offerings. This balance ensures that the enhancement brought about by the European degree complements, rather than conflicts with, the established educational frameworks within individual countries.

Award process and actors

In addition, one of the main questions discussed by the pilots for the implementation of the European degree is who would carry out the assessment of whether the programme meets the European criteria and decide whether a European degree (in whatever form) can be awarded. There is a broad consensus that the European degree should integrate rather than duplicate existing processes. In order to minimise costs and maximise benefits, the integration of application and evaluation procedures into existing accreditation/evaluation procedures is considered to be the most effective.

When assessing whether a programme meets the criteria for awarding a European degree, the most common recommendation from the European policy experimentation projects is that the awarding process should look like an accreditation/quality assurance process, even in the case of a label and certainly in the case of a degree. Many favour an approach that would involve the use of national accreditation and quality assurance agencies registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR). In this scenario, one agency could review the criteria for the European degree and its decision would be accepted in all participating countries without the need for separate review by their quality assurance agencies.

Any agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education would be eligible to verify the compliance of programmes or institutions with the European criteria, fully integrating this process into existing procedures for programme accreditation and quality assurance. Higher education institutions that can self-accredit their own programmes could also award European degrees, provided they can demonstrate that they have the appropriate processes in place to ensure compliance with the European criteria.

The pilots also emphasised the need for a fair and transparent process across countries, and suggested more detailed descriptions of the criteria and a set of indicators for better readability and measurability. The development of a comprehensive toolkit or guidance document that provides definitions and clarifies the meaning of each criterion would be an invaluable resource. Such a resource could serve as a guide for evaluators, defining the evaluation methodology and indicators and providing examples of good practice.

As the pilots progressed, a third option emerged: the introduction of the European degree as a degree offered by alliances of higher education institutions with a legal entity. Under this option, alliances of higher education institutions that would have chosen to establish a legal entity could be accredited to deliver joint educational provisions, including a European degree. National legislation would need to allow such accreditation of new legal entities. This option was not explored in depth by all six pilots, but some did gather preliminary views on it revealing diverse perspectives.

An overview of each option is presented below.

Entry point 1: a European label.

A label is given to joint degree programmes meeting the European criteria. While the label will provide a powerful branding tool, it will not solve the obstacles encountered by higher education institutions to establish joint degree programmes.

Entry point 2: a European degree.

A degree is awarded jointly by several universities from different countries (e.g. a European universities alliance). The European degree is integrated as a new type of qualification into national legislation. This offers significant simplification both for higher education institutions and for students by removing disparities between national rules and equipping EU universities with a common and clear framework to create joint degree programmes. As any degree, it would be accredited following national legislation and National Qualification Frameworks by the competent authorities at institutional, regional, or national levels. 

A European degree could also be awarded by a European legal entity established by several higher education institutions from different countries (e.g. a European universities alliance with a legal status). Same as entry point 2a but with a legal status. This path would offer the simplest way with the highest efficiency for universities in terms of associated costs and necessary resources.

These more advanced and institutionalised forms of cooperation have been experimented with under the second topic of the 2022 call for proposals on ‘European policy experimentation in higher education under the Erasmus+ programme’, which invited proposals to explore the feasibility of a possible European legal status for alliances of higher education institutions. The preliminary results of the selected projects are presented in the upcoming section.

2.2.5     A possible European legal status for alliances of higher education institutions

Transnational cooperation between higher education institutions has a widely recognised and positive impact on academic and research excellence and innovation in the higher education sector, and thus on the cohesion and competitiveness of Member States and the European Union as a whole. Nonetheless, the pursuit of international cooperation between higher education institutions is often not straightforward.

In 2020, the European University Association conducted a survey 140 among 219 higher education institutions from across 34 European systems. Even then, just two years after the launch of the European Universities Initiative, 59% of respondents identified administrative obstacles to cooperation due to different institutional structures and processes as one of the most significant barriers to deeper strategic cooperation.

One of the barriers is related to the lack of a legal status for alliances of higher education institutions. They see a strong need for this in order to be able to share financial, human, digital and physical resources, infrastructures and services, as well as joint activities, including educational activities, more efficiently.

These challenges have not gone unnoticed. The Council Recommendation of 5 April 2022 on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation 141 invited the Commission to ‘support the Member States and higher education institutions in testing the use of existing European instruments from 2022 onwards as a step on the way to facilitating deeper, long-term and flexible transnational cooperation and in examining the need for and feasibility of institutionalised cooperation instruments, such as a possible legal status for alliances of higher education institutions’.

In the same recommendation, the European Council further elaborated on the objectives that such instruments – to be used on a voluntary basis - could strive for, highlighting, among others, ‘the sharing of capacities and data and the exchange of staff, where appropriate, and the implementation of joint programmes, with the aim of awarding joint degrees at the level of alliances, including a joint degree based on co-created European criteria’.

As a result, in June 2022, the European Commission launched a European policy experimentation in higher education under the Erasmus+ programme 142 , to pilot a joint European degree label and test institutionalised EU cooperation instruments, such as a possible European legal status for alliances. At the end of January 2023, 10 European policy experimentation projects were selected, four of which committed to testing institutionalised EU cooperation instruments, such as a possible European legal status for alliances:

1.European Status for a ECIU University (ESEU).

2.Blueprint for a legal entity for cross-border university alliances (Leg-UniGR).

3.UNITA as a model for institutionalised university cooperation: from the European Grouping of Economic Interest to the European Grouping of Academic Interest (EGAI).

4.EUt+ Status and structure experience (STYX).

Out of these four projects, two are focussing on a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) 143 , one on a European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG) 144 , and the fourth project is providing a comprehensive analysis of different existing European legal instruments in the light of different use cases identified, while comparing them to existing national-level solutions.

The European policy experimentation projects form the basis of the following findings.

Existing alliances of higher education institutions with a legal status

European Universities alliances, supported under Erasmus+, consist of partner higher education institutions pursuing a joint long-term vision. The rich diversity of the higher education landscape in Europe is also reflected in the different models for cooperation that the European Universities alliances have set up. Depending on the strategic vision of the alliance, different levels of integration and cooperation are envisaged.

Currently, out of 50 European Universities alliances, at least 12 alliances have already set up a legal entity: 4EU+, Circle U, ECIU, EU-CONEXUS, EUNICE, EUniWell, FILMEU, UNA EUROPA, UNITA, EUTOPIA, E3UDRES2, YUFE. To date, despite having partner institutions from different countries, most of them have chosen one of the legal instruments available under the national legislation of certain Member States, i.e. non-profit association under Belgian law, international non-profit association under Belgian law, foundation under Dutch law, registered association under German law, and registered association under Austrian law.

In all these cases, the alliances reported administrative and operational advantages as the decisive factors for setting up a legal entity with a legal identity 145 . In addition, of the 40 European Universities alliances surveyed that started their operations in 2019 and 2020, 11 have reported that they are in the process of developing a legal entity for their alliance. This means that more than 20 European Universities clearly see the added value of a legal status for their alliance. Others have indicated to await progress and results of the Erasmus+ pilot projects, while nevertheless showing strong interest in the topic.

Other alliances of European higher education institutions, beyond the European Universities alliances, have also made significant strides in establishing a legal status to formalise their cooperation, for example through a non-profit association under Luxembourg law and a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation.

An overview of some of the alliances with an established legal status can be found in Table 2 .

Table 2.2: Overview of alliances of higher education institutions with an established legal status

Type of legal status

Alliance(s)

Not-for-profit organisation under German law.

4EU+, EUniWell

Not-for-profit organisation under Belgian law.

Circle U, EU-Conexus, EUNICE, Film-EU, Una Europa, EUTOPIA, YUFE

Foundation under Dutch law.

ECIU

Not-for-profit organisation under Luxembourg law.

Université de la Grande Région 146

Not-for-profit organisation under Austrian law.

E3UDRES2

European Economic Interest Grouping.

UNITA

European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation.

Eucor, European Campus of Studies and Research, La Agrupación Europea de Cooperación Territorial Galicia-Norte de Portugal (GNP-AECT)

All of the four European policy experimentation projects selected in the context of the Erasmus+ policy experimentation in higher education testing institutionalised EU cooperation instruments, such as a possible European legal status for alliances, aim at a relatively high level of operational and institutional integration. Some of the projects pointed to greater visibility in their region and in Europe as a driver for the formalisation of their legal status, while others aim at the full merger of their institutions in the long term to offer European degrees and seamless mobility of students and staff members.

Following consultations with some of these alliances and European policy experimentation projects, it is concluded that these instruments address to some extent the operational and administrative dimension of transnational cooperation. However, they were not primarily designed for cooperation in the higher education sector and therefore did not provide the opportunity for significant advances in higher education cooperation, such as the development of a joint education offer.

Available national and EU legal instruments

National and EU legal frameworks offer a wide variety of legal forms that could theoretically be applied to higher education institutions. Nevertheless, many of them have limitations that effectively hinder the achievement of the seamless transnational cooperation sought by higher education alliances. For this reason, for this Staff Working Document, the selection of available legal instruments concentrates only on those that are used or planned to be used in the higher education sector, with a focus on facilitating deeper cooperation in higher education.

It then presents an analysis of their suitability to the needs of the alliances of higher education institutions identified in the context of the Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects.

National instruments

1.Consortia and other public groupings

In most EU Member States, consortia are defined as a cooperation between legal entities governed by a civil law contract. They usually do not give the consortium a separate legal personality 147 . Their purpose is to improve and/or extend the cooperation of an association of institutions in order to achieve mutually beneficial objectives. Depending on the applicable legislation, consortia and other public groupings may benefit from tax exemptions for activities of general interest, and ease of establishment.

Examples of national alliances in higher education using consortia are to be found in Spain 148 and in Italy 149 .

2.International non-profit association under Belgian law (AISBL/IVZW)

This is a Belgian legal instrument that allows cooperation between natural or legal persons pursuing an objective of international utility for non-profit purposes. The association can be set up even if none of the founding members is resident in Belgium, but the head office must be in Belgium and the association must obtain a Royal decree.

Three European Universities alliances have made use of this instrument – Circle U, EU-Conexus, EUTOPIA, EUNICE and YUFE.

3.Non-profit association under Belgian law (ASBL/VZW)

This is a Belgian instrument designed for a group of legal or natural persons who pursue a non-profit purpose. It must consist of at least two members, one of which must be established in Belgium. The association does not require a Royal decree but has a strictly prescribed organisational structure.

The UNA Europa and FILMEU European Universities alliance have made use of this legal instrument.

 

4.Non-profit association under Austrian law

The E3UDRES2 European University is making use of this legal instrument.

5.Registered association under German law

This is a German legal entity established for non-profit purposes. It must have at least seven members, one of whom must be established in Germany. The association must also have a general secretariat established in Germany. The incorporation procedure is relatively simple, and it offers the flexibility of a management structure.

The 4EU+ and the EUniWell alliances are making use of this legal instrument.

6.Foundation under Dutch law

A foundation is a legal entity under Dutch law. The purpose of a foundation can be defined relatively flexibly by the founders, but must have primarily social objectives and its income must benefit the organisation itself. The only statutory body is a board. Other management structures are characterised in the founding documents.

The ECIU alliance has made use of this legal instrument.

7.Non-profit association under Luxembourg law

This is a Luxembourg legal instrument that allows the creation of a non-profit association. A minimum of three members is required for the formation of an association. The registered office of the association can be transferred without the association losing its legal personality. The incorporation procedure is fairly simple. The two governing bodies required by law are a board of directors and a general assembly.

UniGR, has made use of this instrument, although currently they are in process of setting up a European legal status, in the form of a European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation (EGTC). This is being done in the framework of the Erasmus+ pilot call for testing institutionalised EU cooperation instruments, such as a possible European legal status for university alliances.

EU legal instruments

1.European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation (EGTC)

The European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) is embedded in EU law through a European regulation 150 . It is a legal entity established on the territory of the European Union to facilitate and promote, in particular, territorial cooperation with a view to strengthening the economic, social and territorial cohesion of the EU. It allows regional, local and other public authorities from at least two different Member States to set up cooperation groupings and to provide joint services.

Beyond the areas defined in the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation Regulation, the law of a Member State where the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation has its registered office applies to the functioning of the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation. The establishment of a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation requires the consent of the Member States. It is governed by the Regulation, a convention (an agreement between its Members) and the statutes adopted on the basis of and in accordance with the convention, and must have at least two organs: an assembly and a director.

The European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation has been used by several alliances of universities 151 and is being further experimented by the projects selected in the context of the Erasmus+ policy experimentation in higher education.

2.European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG)

The European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG) is a legal entity directly incorporated into Union law 152 . The purpose of a European Economic Interest Grouping is to facilitate or develop the economic activities of its members and to improve or increase the results of those activities, but not to make profits for itself. A European Economic Interest Grouping must be formed by at least two companies, firms, legal persons or natural persons from two different Member States.

The grouping must have at least two organs: a college of members and the manager or managers of the European Economic Interest Grouping. A contract for the formation of a European Economic Interest Grouping may provide for other organs and define their powers. The European Economic Interest Grouping and its organs cannot exercise any power of management or control over the activities of its members - the members retain their legal and economic independence.

UNITA, one of the European Universities piloting a legal status for university alliances, has already created and European Economic Interest Grouping and will use this legal status for several use cases, with an economic angle, for example concerning digital infrastructure and micro-credentials.

2.2.6    The preliminary findings of the policy experimentation projects funded under the Erasmus+ programme

Needs of alliances of higher education institutions in relation to institutionalised EU cooperation instruments, such as a possible European legal status for alliances

In the context of the Erasmus+ policy experimentation in higher education, higher education institutions have identified several needs related to deeper cooperation across Europe in higher education, linked to a possible legal status for alliances:

1.Simplified provision of joint educational activities by the alliance

Some alliances of higher education institutions, including also European Universities alliances selected under Erasmus+, aspire to facilitate the provision of joint educational activities by the alliance, and to be able to offer new learning opportunities, and to award quality assured and recognised educational qualifications. This would currently not be possible, as alliances are not recognised as higher education institutions. Also, at the level of the different partner higher education institutions, this is extremely difficult in most cases, taking into account the multiple accreditation and quality assurance processes, which place a heavy burden on alliances when offering new joint educational offers.

2.Joint resource management

Some alliances of higher education institutions, including also European Universities alliances selected under Erasmus+, wish to pool and share physical infrastructure, as well as common interoperable digital infrastructure and solutions, allowing unrestricted access to all services and education. This would also include owning, sharing, receiving and managing data as a single entity, and acquiring and exercising intellectual property rights if agreed upon by the alliance, as well as the development of joint purchasing power.

3.Acquisition of funding from the public and private sectors

Several alliances of higher education institutions, including also European Universities alliances selected under Erasmus+, in all their diversity, desire flexible access to public and private funding from a variety of sources. This encompasses eligibility to apply for national, regional and European funding sources across Europe, attracting private and corporate funding, or generating private income from continuous education. Alliances need to manage and distribute funding between themselves and other stakeholders.

4.Reliable counterparty for the eco-system stakeholders of the alliance

Several alliances of higher education institutions, including also European Universities alliances selected under Erasmus+, see the added value of a European legal status in being a legal reliable counterparty concerning interactions with the alliance’s ecosystem stakeholders, i.e. contract signing for traineeships, joint information technology (IT) infrastructure, privately paid scholarships and private funding contributions, promotion of intersectoral mobility of academic and industry staff etc. Also, it can help to improve access to the ecosystems of all partner universities (e.g. innovation, industry and civil society actors, policymakers, and mayors).

5.International attractiveness, increased visibility and representation

Several alliances of higher education institutions, including also European Universities alliances selected under Erasmus+, are seeking an EU legal instrument that reflects the European dimension of their cooperation, and which provides European added value and a neutral approach to alliances. This would enable joint representation to supranational, national, EU and international policy makers, administrations and organisations, cooperation with third country higher education institutions and the wider ecosystem of entities (e.g., business, civil society, research centres), and offer a common identity and marketing label.

6.Management of students

Several alliances of higher education institutions, including also European Universities alliances selected under Erasmus+, wish to cooperate seamlessly when it comes to the management of students active in the joint educational offer of the alliance, including aspects linked to mobilities and enrolment procedures.

7.Recruitment of staff

Several alliances of higher education institutions, including also European Universities alliances selected under Erasmus+, aim to recruit staff at European level through simple, flexible recruitment procedures, under certain and clear legal rules regarding the fiscal implications and social security of employees.

Preliminary finding of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects: fitness of existing legal instruments

The four related Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects have a wide approach, testing different institutionalised EU cooperation instruments, such as a possible European legal status for alliances. Below is an overview of the available and implementable legal forms that have been piloted and the current status of the projects.

Table 2.3: Legal forms piloted by the Erasmus+ projects

Legal form

Project

Status of the project

European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC).

Leg-UniGR

Last steps before launch set-up procedure of the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation.

STYX

Analysis of European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation instrument ongoing, in the context of wider toolbox of legal instruments.

European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG).

EGAI

European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG) is set up and will now be tested with use cases (e.g. micro-credentials, IT infrastructure).

The ESEU project is analysing the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC), the European Company (SE), the European Cooperative Society (ECS), and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)/ Knowledge Innovation Communities (KICs). The preliminary conclusion is to maintain the existing legal entity of ECIU under Dutch law, and to provide recommendations for possible future EU action as the current instruments all have some limitations.

Source: Overview of Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects

The Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects have emphasised the diversity of alliance models, and the need for any legal instrument to be flexible, i.e. a toolbox to facilitate deeper transnational cooperation. The projects emphasised that any proposed solution should be voluntary and not replace national-level structures of the partner institutions.

According to the results of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects none of the existing legal instruments – neither those available at national, nor those available at EU level, fully correspond to the needs voiced by alliances of higher education institutions. The solutions at hand offer only partial answers to some of the challenges identified.

All projects see the added value of an (improved) European level legal tool compared to a national level legal tool, also when it comes to increased visibility and representation, as well as equal treatment of all partner institutions. The key drawback identified so far, seems to be that the existing legal tools are limited when it comes to the provision of joint educational activities.

Although several European Universities have been able to use the available legal mechanisms to set up an entity in a particular EU Member State or at European level (see noted above), they have managed to overcome only some of the operational and administrative obstacles. For those entities established at national level, the European dimension of their cooperation is not reflected, nor are some differences in national legislation addressed.

National legal entities could be perceived as unduly favouring some members of the alliances that are located in the country of the applicable legislation. And last but not least, none of the available legal mechanisms seem to be fully able to cover the needs of alliances when it comes to simplified provision of educational activities by the alliance, as alliances are not recognised as higher education institutions.

Some of the alliances point to the fact that more flexible, profit-oriented existing legal statuses are subject to the restrictions imposed on higher education institutions by national legislation, while public law entities are seen as too rigid in their operation and too complex to set up. As a result, they limit the potential scope of the alliance’s activities and its ability to expand in the future and are not fully suited to its needs.

However, the review of the different legal instruments by the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects has shown that the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation Regulation at European level may have the potential to respond to the specific needs of higher education institutions in the future, if further changes to the European legislation are made. Its main advantages include: a common regulation laid down in EU law; the establishment of a grouping from different EU Member States without the need for a prior international agreement to be signed and ratified by national parliaments; flexible organisation; a strong commitment on the part of the members; a legal basis for joint management of resources; and the increased visibility of the alliance.

Notwithstanding the fact that a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation can deepen interinstitutional cooperation between universities, there are still gaps that hinder the full achievement of the objectives of alliances of higher education institutions, such as: complex establishment procedure which include the need for national support; heterogeneous implementation of the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation Regulation; issues with private participation (including private universities); limited guidance and practice in the higher education sector, as the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation is not facilitating the provision of joint educational activities.

Overall, given the great diversity of alliances of higher education institutions, as well as the different characteristics of the existing legal instruments, none of them can fully facilitate the achievement of the mission of the alliances as a whole.

The need to navigate through many complicated legal systems and sets of obligations stemming from heterogeneous national legislation is the most significant challenge to the further institutionalisation of higher education alliances and networks. As long as there are no tailor-made legal solutions for cooperation between higher education institutions, this barrier is unlikely to disappear.

Chapter 3: Breaking down barriers for a European degree – the obstacles to overcome

Although the Bologna Process has contributed to a significant progress in facilitating transnational cooperation between higher education institutions, many challenges persist 153 . 

‘Currently, the challenges are related to a lack of a unified framework for joint programmes and the legal disparities between the countries in EHEA’.

European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE) – Call for Evidence.

The insights derived from the reports of the six Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects allow these barriers to be grouped into four main areas: accreditation and quality assurance, programme and curricula structure, governance structure, and student enrolment and admission.

These reports mostly draw on expert consultations conducted to identify legal barriers, and to propose preliminary solutions that can be further investigated. However, these findings might be incomplete due to potential gaps in expert knowledge, and the incomplete representation of all EU Member States in the European policy experimentation projects. Therefore, to complement the information, especially for countries not represented in the European policy experimentation projects, findings of relevant studies completed in the period 2017-2023 have also been considered 154 .

3.1Challenges related to Accreditation and quality assurance

Obstacles related to quality assurance and recognition are considered to be some of the most difficult to overcome and often overshadow challenges identified in other areas. The heterogeneity of accreditation and quality assurance criteria, procedures and timeframes across European countries creates significant hurdles for higher education institutions seeking to offer joint programmes and joint degrees. These complications arise from restrictive national legislation, high accreditation costs, and differing interpretations of the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes.

The main reported obstacles in the context of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects were:

1.Accreditation timelines and procedures: each country has unique timelines and requirements for programme accreditation, making it difficult to coordinate joint initiatives. For example, countries such as Belgium (Flanders), Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands require programmes to meet local market needs, and often a country-specific macro-efficiency test is required. In addition, the accreditation process starts early in Belgium (Flanders) and France, while in Italy the deadlines for submitting curricula often conflict with the January examination period. In Spain, legal experts face challenges in finalising consortium agreements within the tight timeframe for accreditation.

2.Restrictions on joint degree creation: in some countries, additional hurdles are created by restrictions on the types of degrees eligible for joint programmes. Germany and Lithuania, for example, only allow joint degrees at the bachelor and master levels. Poland limits joint degrees to certain categories of universities. In Romania, although allowed by law, the organisation and accreditation of joint degree programmes is not feasible in practice until the Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ARACIS) publishes its Methodology for the accreditation of joint programmes’.

3.Challenges in interdisciplinary degree creation: interdisciplinary programmes encounter specific challenges, as many countries require them to focus primarily on a single discipline or allocate a substantial proportion of courses to one area. For instance, in Czechia, more than 50% of an interdisciplinary degrees content must be focused on a single discipline. This type of restriction is also found in Belgium (Flanders), France, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Sweden, limiting the flexibility of these programmes.

4.Accreditation procedure for programme changes: in countries such as Spain, Croatia, Italy and Cyprus, any change in the composition of the consortium or in the core curriculum necessitates a new accreditation procedure. In Finland, the need for re-accreditation in such cases remains unclear.

5.Financial implications of accreditation: the cost of accreditation procedures is a significant financial barrier, especially when multiple accreditations are required. In Estonia, Latvia and the Netherlands, the financial burden of these procedures falls on higher education institutions, adding to the challenges of setting up joint programmes.

6.Barriers to application of the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes: the practical application is limited in several countries, with Greece and Spain facing notable barriers. In Belgium (Flanders) it does not apply to joint doctoral programmes, and in the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Slovenia and Slovakia it is not considered feasible.

Potential solutions

The first common recommendation to facilitate the accreditation of joint programmes proposes that national authorities should clarify how their rules and legislation apply to the accreditation and quality assurance of joint programmes in order to ensure a common understanding among stakeholders. Where possible, specific quality assurance and accreditation rules and derogations for joint programmes and joint degree programmes should be established: they should be in line with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area and involving an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).

Another proposed arrangement, which would require minimal legislative changes in Member States, is to allow alliances, including European Universities alliances, to choose a jurisdiction and to manage joint programmes/award joint degrees on the basis of that legal framework. The disadvantage of this option is that it may lead to most alliances choosing a few countries where it is easiest/cheapest to set up joint degrees.

Participants also stressed that Member States should fully implement existing European frameworks, such as the European Higher Education Area principles, the Bologna Process tools, and the European Approach to Quality Assurance Framework. Additionally, proposals are made for more synergies in quality assurance and accreditation practices across EU countries.

3.2Challenges related to programme and curricula structure and diploma templates

The European Union holds only supplementary competence in the field of higher education. This means that the legal and institutional frameworks in the Member States differ greatly from one country or region to another, which on the one hand reflects the great diversity of the European academic landscape, and on the other hand poses significant regulatory obstacles.

The results of the Erasmus+ European policy experimentation projects revealed that European higher education institutions grapple with the challenge of aligning academic years, grading scales, and credit workloads in the pursuit of joint programmes and joint degrees. Recognising blended or online learning can be contentious in some regions, while the form of final exams varies widely. Additionally, restrictive national legislation regarding language use and proficiency and the percentage of foreign teachers can disrupt programme development. These issues highlight the need for greater flexibility in the structural elements of joint programmes.

The main challenges identified are:

1.Differences in academic years: the variation in the duration of academic years across European countries complicates the alignment of joint degree curricula. This inconsistency poses challenges in synchronising academic schedules and programme structures.

2.Grading scales and workload: European universities face challenges in student evaluation due to different grading scales, workload per ECTS and credit transfer methods. While the standard allocation for bachelor degrees is generally 180 ECTS, Greece and Poland deviate from this norm and offer programmes with up to 360 ECTS. In addition, countries such as Czechia, Italy, Hungary, and Austria have specific grading scale requirements which further complicate the evaluation process. In France, for example, ECTS is not used at the doctoral level. Furthermore, some countries have set national restrictions, such as minimum ECTS thresholds for the completion of the second cycle, adding another layer of complexity to the compatibility of educational standards across Europe.

3.The recognition of blended/online learning varies, with some countries lacking clear legislation on online mobility. For instance, Czechia and Sweden do not have explicit policies, while Italy and Poland limit the percentage of distance learning allowed in programmes. In Italy, online final exams are generally prohibited, and in Lithuania joint programmes often require physical academic mobility.

4.Final exam forms: the requirement for national or state examinations is not universally applied, leading to differences in assessment methods. Austria regulates the procedure for final examinations, Czechia mandates a thesis defence and a public state examination, and Finland stipulates the length of the thesis. Italy regulates the number of final exams, and there are diverse requirements for theses, including length and the number of experts on the evaluation committee.

5.Minimum duration requirements: some countries impose minimum semester requirements to be spent at the home or partner institution, which affects the mobility aspect of joint programmes. For example, Austria has minimum credit requirements at partner institutions for joint degrees. Similar restrictions exist in Belgium (Flanders), Germany, Estonia, Ireland, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Finland.

6.Postponement of studies and de-enrolment: the rules vary on taking a break from studies for reasons such as pregnancy or illness without being de-enrolled. Countries such as Belgium (Flanders), Czechia, France, Hungary, Poland, Finland, and Sweden, specific rules apply. In Finland and Sweden, universities are generally prohibited from de-enrolling students.

7.Language proficiency and foreign teachers: legislation imposing language requirements on foreign teachers and limiting their number in study programme has an impact on the development of education across Europe. Countries enforce various rules, such as language requirements for teaching, language proficiency tests and limits on the proportion of foreign teachers. For example, Belgium (Flanders) sets quotas on foreign language programmes, Czechia varies fees for non-native language programmes, and Denmark and Lithuania restrict teaching languages. Finland requires national language equivalents for programmes, while France requires part of the teaching to be in French, affecting diploma types. Italy restricts the nationality of teachers. These diverse regulations create a complex landscape for programme development in Europe.

8.Regulations on graduation diplomas and rules: the format and content of degree certificates, including paper type, size, logos, language use, and signature requirements, are strictly regulated in many countries, such as Belgium, Czechia, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Finland, and Sweden. These rules detail the required information, logo placement and signature format in such detail that a joint award is a very difficult, if not impossible, task.

9.Regulated professions: almost all countries have regulated professions, each with its own requirements and list of regulated professions. This diversity makes it challenging to set up joint programmes in these fields. Countries facing this challenge, as reported by the Erasmus+ policy experimentation projects, include Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Finland, and Sweden.

10.Intellectual property rights legislation: differences in intellectual property rights legislation, where in some countries, such as Belgium (Flanders) and Sweden, students or researchers own their work, while in others, such as Czechia, the institution owns it, affect the development of course material.

Potential olutions

The preliminary outcomes of the European policy experimentation projects provide evidence that, if the Bologna Process instruments had been fully applied, some discrepancies in legislation might have disappeared. However, the Bologna Process in itself does not remove all country-specific obstacles stemming from curricular regulations.

The recommendations from the European policy experimentation projects advocate greater flexibility in national rules on joint programme structure and curriculum and joint degree templates. They indicate that joint programmes could be allowed to set their own academic calendars, distinct from those of traditional degree programmes. In addition, the focus of legislation should shift to learning outcomes, allowing for the integration of online and blended learning methods.

In situations where national legislation cannot be universally adapted, higher education institutions suggest that exceptions be made specifically for joint programmes. This could be the case for laws aimed at protecting the national language by limiting the language of instruction. Similarly, there are calls for national grading scales and examination formats to take account of joint programmes. Some reports also recommend the adoption of a standard European grading conversion table to reduce discrepancies and facilitate smoother cooperation between partner universities.

In general, European policy experimentation projects reflect the need to fully implement the recommendations of the Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation, and to give consortia of higher education institutions the flexibility to agree details of joint programme structures, curriculum design and diploma templates in cooperation agreements.

For the regulated professions, legal experts cooperating with the European policy experimentation projects suggested working on the compatibility of European requirements for degree programmes leading to regulated professions and involving professionals in the design of programmes or their evaluation. With regard to intellectual property rights, the European policy experimentation projects recommended concluding an agreement on property rights in order to avoid individual agreements with teaching staff or students.

3.3Challenges related to governance structure

The establishment of joint programmes and joint degrees necessitates clear governance structures, but restrictive legislation in some European countries complicates this aspect. Many European countries require consortium agreements, including Belgium, Belgium (Flanders), Czechia, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Netherlands Austria, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden.

The regulatory frameworks for consortium agreements can be intricate and time-consuming, and divergent rules on the composition and responsibilities of programme bodies/institutions add further layers of complexity. For instance, Croatia requires consortium agreements to include information on enrolment conditions, examination and evaluation methods for students, while Lithuania expects them to encompass student admission conditions, study procedures, assessment principles and crediting of student achievements. Ensuring compatibility between governance structures across borders is therefore essential for efficient and successful joint programmes and joint degrees.

Potential solutions

A potential solution suggested by some would be to establish a unified set of minimum requirements for consortium agreements throughout Europe with a proposed template. This would allow each consortium to include additional details about their partnership, provided they meet the minimum standards.

This approach would streamline administrative processes while maintaining the flexibility to address specific partnership needs. Another, more ambitious solution, to the above impediments is to grant legal status to alliances of higher education institutions on a voluntary basis (discussed in more detail below).

3.4Challenges related to student enrolment and admission

Student mobility is a central element of most joint programmes and joint degrees, but legislative challenges in this area persist. The obligation for students to enrol in multiple universities, varying tuition fee structures, and inconsistent recognition of previous education can hinder accessibility and affordability. Stringent language proficiency requirements, and restrictive legislation on student selection, can also limit the inclusivity and diversity of joint programmes. Streamlining enrolment and admission processes is crucial for attracting a diverse student body and ensuring equitable access to these educational opportunities.

The main obstacles identified are:

1.Restrictions on student enrolment: the mandate for students to enrol simultaneously at several universities poses financial and administrative challenges. In Finland, students must be enrolled in a Finnish university at the time of graduation, while in France students must be enrolled in all universities awarding the degree. In other countries, such as Czechia and the Netherlands, enrolment is closely tied to higher education institution funding, leading higher education institutions to favour students enrolled with them.

2.Tuition fees: differences in tuition fee structures across Europe affect the accessibility and affordability of joint degree programmes. Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, for example, require non-EU students to pay tuition fees, while forbidding them for EU students. In Czechia, students pay fees for programmes taught in languages other than Czech. In France, fees are set at national level, with exceptions possible under specific agreements. In Italy, if the coordinating university is Italian, tuition fees are calculated on the basis of the students income conditions.

3.Restrictive legislation on student selection: strict regulations on student selection in some countries limit the diversity of the student body and complicate the admission process. In Flanders, it is not possible to limit the number of students admitted to first cycle programmes for those holding a secondary education diploma. Cyprus has different rules for distance learning/online programmes and face-to-face programmes, and separate rules for EU and non-EU citizens. Denmark, Hungary, and Sweden have detailed rules to ensure equal treatment in selection. Italy applies quotas that differentiate between non-EU and EU students.

Potential solutions

The pilot project reports suggest that national systems could introduce a rule whereby enrolment at one university in a joint programme implies enrolment at all participating universities. Alternatively, official enrolment could be limited to a single institution, with registration required only at partner institutions, clarifying which legislation and institutional rules apply.

For tuition fee management, the simplification of public funding for joint programmes is recommended to lessen dependence on student registration and tuition fees while ensuring that students continue to benefit from the same conditions and policies regarding tuition fees as if they enrolled in local programmes.

3.5Types of overarching solutions to overcome the barriers

In the course of the work, one of the pilot projects (ED-AFFICHE) tried to move from country-specific obstacles and obstacle-specific solutions to more general approaches that could possibly be further explored by the European Commission and implemented by the Member States. This made it possible to propose six possible strategies for addressing the legal and administrative challenges to transnational cooperation between higher education institutions resulting from national or regional legal or administrative frameworks. Some of the proposed solutions are overarching and could address several or all of the reported obstacles in a given country at the same time while a combination of different approaches could be used in another national or regional.

Tailor-made legislation

The most straightforward way of tackling barriers is an article-by-article approach to amending one or more legal texts. This approach requires an extensive and thorough mapping of existing barriers and a careful process of modifying legal acts that pose undue difficulties. Although it is a viable way to address the remaining challenges, it requires a high degree of coordination with other Member States. If Member States amend their legislation independently and without sufficient coordination, there is a risk that similar barriers will remain despite the changes.

Sandbox

The first of the overarching solutions is a ‘sandbox’. A sandbox is a test environment in which, in this case, joint programmes are given room to experiment. A competent authority declares that certain rules do not apply to joint programmes in order to allow them to be set up and implemented. The idea of a sandbox has already been tested in the EU. For example, Flemish legislation stipulates that international joint or double degree programmes that have gone through a European selection process (e.g. Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters) are not considered as new programmes and do not require initial accreditation.

As the national or regional authorities create the conditions for these experimental spaces, this allows them to define the limits of inapplicability of legal provisions and to retain full control over the process. Nevertheless, like an article-by-article approach, sandboxes require a high degree of cooperation between Member States. This follows from the fact that they can be effective as long as all Member States of higher education institutions participating in a consortium provide for the same exemptions in their legislation. Otherwise, their impact remains limited. The long-term consolidation of sandboxes leads to a process of deregulation.

Default legislation

The technique of default legislation is widely used in private civil law. Instead of providing for exceptions to binding rules, it renders the legislation non-compulsory, i.e. a default rule applies only if the parties to the consortium agreement have not agreed a specific, tailor-made rule for their joint programme. For instance, Spain has recently adopted this strategy to grant flexibility to European Universities alliances. Again, this technique requires sufficient coordination between Member States. It can only be effective if the consortium partners are allowed to deviate from the same set of rules.

Choice of legislation

The choice of legislation refers to the choice of the legal framework applicable to a joint degree programme. It makes it possible either to choose a single law governing all aspects of cooperation between higher education institutions, or to decide to apply different legal provisions to different parts of a consortium agreement.

This overarching solution provides a high level of legal certainty and alleviates the main challenge for higher education institutions, which is to navigate through incompatible legal frameworks governing the functioning of institutions in different Member States. Any discrepancies could be resolved by reference to one or more legal acts agreed between the partners in a consortium agreement. However, this strategy would require a clear position of all Member States on the possibility of applying foreign law to certain parts of the consortium agreement. Otherwise, this solution may have far-reaching negative consequences, including the invalidation of the degrees awarded.

Shift of competence

The last overarching solution put forward by the ED-AFFICHE project was to shift the competences for coordinating transnational education from the Member States to the European Union. However, it was pointed out that such a solution would require treaty changes and that it would be desirable to preserve the principle of subsidiarity and to arrive at a workable legal framework for the European degree while respecting the full competence of the Member States.

The Technical Support Instrument

Finding the right solution for the right system and implement it can be challenging. Through the Technical Support Instrument (TSI), DG REFORM supports EU Member States with modernizing their higher education systems to attain national objectives, in line with the relevant EU priorities on enhanced quality, inclusiveness and digitalisation. This support aims at -inter alia- consolidating the legal and administrative frameworks, developing policies, streamlining practices, designing, and implementing strategies for performance-based funding, and improving the governance models and quality assurance mechanisms of higher education institutions. Thus, it also contributes to innovation across Member States, helping them promote knowledge exchange and foster cooperation between universities, research, industry, and businesses, with a view to address skills shortages and mismatches on the labour market.

Examples of reforms supported by TSI and its predecessor, the Structural Reform Support Programme (SRSP) include the following:

- Latvia developed a new academic career model as a cornerstone of modernising its higher education, as well as a roadmap for implementing the model, bringing together international expertise and national priorities.

- Portugal transformed access and completion policies in higher education for greater social inclusion.

- Ireland introduced a new testing system to assess the cost implications of different policy decisions when designing higher education programmes, considering the socio-economic and macroeconomic impact of policymaking in higher education.

- Hungary adapted its higher education regulatory, quality assurance and institutional support frameworks to deliver online and hybrid study programmes.

- Spain developed a roadmap for policy reform to foster cooperation between universities, research, and businesses.

- Croatia built the evidence-base for the development of the E-Universities project funded under the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

- Italy developed a better understanding of the barriers to and opportunities for knowledge exchange.

- Slovakia identified policy options to strengthen the quality and attractiveness of its higher education system and developed an action plan to improve its governance and funding.”

Chapter 4: A fit-for-purpose European quality assurance system

This section first introduces quality assurance in higher education at the European level, setting it in the context of the 49-country European Higher Education Area cooperation in higher education, known as the Bologna Process. It then provides an overview of key developments supporting the consistent application of Bologna tools across the European Union, including the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) and the European Approach for the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes (European Approach).

The section then introduces the key challenges to quality assurance in European higher education, in particular the uneven take-up of the ESG by Member States and the low take-up of the European Approach to evaluate the quality of joint programmes.

This chapter is underpinned by a literature review and initial results of a study commissioned to ICF in preparation for this higher education package which included: extensive desk research; and analysis of quality assurance activities in EU Member States; interviews with key stakeholders 155 ; and an online workshop with 34 experts from across the European Union.

4.1Quality assurance in higher education 

The 2015 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) User Guide defined quality assurance in education as being:

the process or set of processes adopted nationally and institutionally to ensure the quality of educational programmes and qualifications awarded. Quality assurance should ensure a learning environment in which the content of programmes, learning opportunities and facilities are fit for purpose. Quality assurance is often referred to in the context of a continuous improvement cycle (i.e. assurance and enhancement activities). 156  

Quality assurance aims for accountability and enhancement, which in turn creates trust in the higher education institution’s performance 157 . A quality assurance system should provide information to assure the higher education institution and the public of the quality of the higher education institution’s activities (accountability), as well as advice and recommendations on how it might improve what it is doing (enhancement).

Quality assurance can be undertaken both internally and externally.

Internal quality assurance is where a higher education institution reviews its internal processes and programmes as a means to identify areas for improvement. Internal quality assurance relies on the experiences of students and staff in the higher education programmes offered by the institutions, and on students’ study progress and outcomes after graduation 158 . The internal quality assurance process provides input for the external quality assurance process.

According to Eurydice, the principle of institutional autonomy implies that the primary responsibility for quality assurance in higher education lies with each institution itself, laying the foundation for the accountability of the university system within national quality frameworks 159 . This means that higher education institutions can choose those approaches and arrangements which better suit their own profile, needs and objectives, giving way to substantial variation by institution, or by type of institutions, within EU Member States in terms of structures and responsibilities.

External quality assurance refers to evaluations by quality assurance agencies. All EU Member States have at least one quality assurance agency 160 , except Luxembourg 161 . There has been a trend towards a one agency model, as a result of the merging of different entities that were previously involved in quality assurance in some countries.

There are institutional, programme and combined approaches to quality assurance.

At the programme level, quality assurance focuses on the evaluation of a particular programme, whether it is at a departmental/disciplinary level (such as an undergraduate programme in Geography, or a Master of Business Administration), or at a joint programme level where the programme takes place across a range of higher education institutions.

Institutional quality assurance focuses on an entire institution and can cover everything from academic programmes, to research, administration, and student and staff services (library, laboratories, recruitment and appraisal, wellbeing, etc.) 162 . Institutional quality assurance involves an external quality review process to assess and ensure that higher education institutions meet acceptable levels of quality. In those systems where institutional accreditation is mandatory, it determines an institution’s entry to and operations within a higher education system. In systems where it is voluntary, it can be considered as a quality benchmark that the institution meets certain educational standards 163 .

Some systems that rely on institutional quality assurance use a system of self-accreditation whereby higher education institutions that meet certain criteria through the quality assurance processes are authorised to establish study programmes and self-accredit their courses without having to seek external accreditation for each new programme 164 .

In the EU, most countries follow a combined approach that includes both institutional and programme approaches.

Quality assurance in higher education fundamentally ‘assures’ all stakeholders that the ‘quality’ of higher education institutions and their staff, management processes, teaching, research, and other activities meet pre-defined ‘standards’. Furthermore, by meeting quality requirements higher education institutions can demonstrate that they are delivering ‘value for money’. If successful, quality assurance can also result in accreditation which gives a quality statement that can be ‘recognised’ by others – hence there is a powerful linkage between quality assurance and recognition.

4.1.1    The need for agile quality assurance frameworks

Quality assurance is an essential enabler of transparency which, for example, can confirm to stakeholders that a programme or an institution meets formally stated criteria, such as those set by national frameworks, and can lead to higher education institutions or their programmes receiving accreditation by professional statutory and regulatory structures. Quality assurance can demonstrate that students are provided with a high-quality teaching and learning environment and curricula (for example, which meet national subject benchmark statements), leading to qualifications that are externally recognised by employers or other higher education systems and institutions.

Quality assurance depends on what is being assessed and assured, but in all cases quality assurance systems need to be dynamic 165 .

‘A robust quality assurance and future-proof quality assurance systems are very relevant for the European higher education area. In particular a system that allows flexibility and trust in experimenting with new formats’.

EuroTeQ Engineering University (European Universities alliance with members in Denmark, Czechia, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain) – Call for Evidence.

As teaching and learning activities evolve, new criteria could be considered, for example: internationalisation; widening access, equality and inclusion; flexible pathways and the recognition of prior learning; preventing student dropouts; employability; academic integrity; lifelong learning and micro-credentials; and addressing the green and digital transitions.

4.1.2    The importance of quality assurance for joint programmes

Quality assurance of higher education institutions and their programmes is the responsibility of Member States. Most quality assurance systems have been developed to evaluate them, and the principles of institutional autonomy also mean that higher education institutions themselves can set their internal quality assurance benchmarks that respond to national quality assurance criteria. This imposes challenges at the European level where there has been an increasing demand for joint programmes that involve consortia of higher education institutions from different countries.

Joint programmes are understood as an integrated curriculum coordinated and offered jointly by different higher education institutions leading to double/multiple degrees or a joint degree.

·While it is difficult to estimate the exact number of joint programmes in the European Union, some reports 166 suggest that the number could be above 3 000.

·The six policy experimentation projects testing the feasibility of a European degree label have mapped about 1 000 joint programmes in Europe offered among 140 higher education institutions.

Joint programmes must operate within the legal frameworks of several national or sub-national systems, which can involve different institutional practices and approaches to accreditation and quality assurance, which can multiply the administrative overhead as more partners and countries are involved. Since this is an inevitable result of the autonomy of higher education institutions and the sovereignty of national higher education systems, any simplification of processes must result from cooperation and commitment at national and sub-national levels.

‘A European Quality Assurance and Recognition mechanism in higher education is essential as it will enable University Alliances to develop long-term fit for purpose joint degree programmes with strong quality assurance processes and procedures which will ultimately facilitate new student-centred collaborative joint degree programmes and microcredentials which are recognised across the Union’.

RUN-EU (European Universities alliance with members in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands) – Call for Evidence.

In spite of the growing importance and numbers of transnational joint programmes in Europe, differing quality assurance procedures have an impact on cooperation between higher education institutions in different Member States.

4.2 Transnational cooperation in quality assurance 

The Bologna Process was launched in 1998-1999 167 as crucial step forward in overcoming the segmentation of the European higher education sector. The process was formalised in 1999, when the Ministers of the then 29 participating countries agreed on a common vision to create a European Higher Education Area 168 (EHEA), a higher education space built on common values and using common tools to ensure more comparable, more compatible, and more coherent higher education systems in Europe. Currently, the European Higher Education Area involves 49 countries 169 and the European Commission.

Promoting cooperation in quality assurance is one of the key commitments of the Bologna Process, along with automatic recognition, and central elements are: the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG); the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes (European Approach); the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR); and, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). These are detailed below.

4.2.1    Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area

The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) comprise standards and guidelines for internal and external quality assurance in higher education. The guidelines were first adopted by Ministers of the European Higher Education Area in 2005 170 , and were revised in 2015 171 . Taking the twin approaches of enhancement and accountability, the ESG focus on three key quality assurance components:

Summary of ESG standards 172

Part 1: Internal quality assurance

Higher education institutions should have:

Quality assurance policies that are part of their strategic management and are publicly available, as well as processes for the design and approval of programmes to ensure they meet their objectives and clearly communicate the learning outcomes and qualifications.

Student-centred learning, teaching and assessment; clear regulations on student admission, progression, recognition, and certification; fair and transparent staff recruitment and development processes; and appropriate funding for learning and reaching activities.

Information management systems that allow the collection, analysis, and use of information for effective programme management; publicly available, clear, accessible, and updated information on their activities and programmes; ongoing monitoring and periodic review of their programmes; and cyclical external quality assurance in line with the ESG.

Part 2: External quality assurance

External quality assurance should:

Address the effectiveness of the internal quality assurance (part 1); be fit-for-purpose and involve stakeholders in its design and continuous improvement; be reliable, pre-defined, consistently implemented, published and followed up by external experts that include students.

Base its outcomes and judgements on explicit and published criteria that are applied consistently; lead to full reports (including decisions) that are published, clear, and accessible to all; and have clearly defined complaints and appeals processes.

Part 3: Quality assurance agencies

Quality assurance agencies should:

Undertake external quality assurance (part 2) on a regular basis with clear and explicit goals and the involvement of stakeholders in their governance and work; have an established legal basis and be recognised as quality assurance agencies by the competent public authorities; be independent and autonomous, with full responsibility for their operations and outcomes; and have adequate resources.

Regularly publish reports on the findings of their activities; have processes for their own internal quality assurance to ensure their professionalism and the quality and integrity of their activities; and undergo an external review at least every five years to demonstrate their compliance with the ESG.

4.2.2    European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes

The European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes addresses transnational joint programmes which are one of the key characteristics of the European Higher Education Area. Joint programmes enhance the mobility of students and higher education staff, providing them with a rich European learning experience, and with a transnational curriculum that is both excellent in content and fully ‘joined up’ across partner institutions 173 . Ministers across the European Higher Education Area have continuously encouraged the development of more joint programmes 174 .

As part of this effort, in their 2012 Bucharest Ministerial Communiqué 175 , the Ministers agreed to review the rules and practices for joint programmes and degrees at national levels, and to identify ways of overcoming barriers facing them. In 2015, the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes (European Approach), was approved at the Ministerial Conference in Yerevan 176  to ease external quality assurance of these programmes: it defines standards that are based on the agreed tools of the European Higher Education Area, without applying additional national criteria 177 .

The European Approach aims to bring together quality assurance into a holistic approach, properly reflecting the jointness of joint programmes. It:

·Recognises that while countries have a diversity of approaches to external quality assurance, it represents a ‘common denominator’ across them.

·Relates only to joint programmes 178 coordinated and offered jointly by higher education institutions from two or more countries; it does not address the quality assurance of programmes delivered jointly by different institutions from a single country.

·Entails a single review (led by an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education) for a programme no matter how many countries and institutions are involved.

·Delivers a review on whether the programme meets the criteria:

oPositive (valid for six years).

oPositive if specific recommendations are met.

oNegative (with a right of appeal against the decision).

Those are important distinctions, because they acknowledge that the European Approach does not interfere with national agencies and their own approaches to higher education outside joint programmes.

The European Approach is not restricted to higher education institutions within the European Higher Education Area. Institutions that are not in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and that are involved in a joint programme can investigate whether their national agency would accept the European Approach and recognise the decision of an agency registered with the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education.

The European Approach had been developed and tested by a range of national quality assurance agencies and other key stakeholders, with the particular understanding that the valuable transnational ‘jointness’ of joint programmes was not clearly reflected in national quality assurance processes.

While the European Approach clearly reflects the jointness of a programme, minimises the workload involved in accreditation through a single process, is attractive for employers who can clearly see the added European value in the programme, its implementation and use still remains uneven.

4.2.3    European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education 

The European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) was founded in 2008 as an independent organisation in charge of establishing and managing a register of quality assurance agencies 179 . It currently lists 57 agencies in 31 countries 180 that work in line with the agreed ESG framework to ensure the quality of higher education institutions and study programmes. 

In 2018, the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education launched the Database of External Quality Assurance Results (DEQAR), which provides access to the reports and decisions of agencies registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education. Currently, there are 93 769 reports available covering 3 895 higher education institutions 181 . The data can be downloaded and visualised online, and an Applications Programming Interface (API) allows the data to be integrated into other applications.

4.2.4    European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education

The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) was established in the year 2000 with a role to promote higher education quality assurance at the European level 182 . It is the European Higher Education Area’s designated stakeholder organisation for quality assurance agencies. The current membership includes 58 full members spanning 56 countries 183 .

To become a full member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, an agency must be based in the European Higher Education Area and provide an external review report that they are compliant with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (parts 2 and 3).

An affiliate organisation can be organisations worldwide that have an interest in quality assurance of higher education but that cannot, or do not want to, be members of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. Currently there are 47 affiliate members 184 . Four Russian members are currently suspended following Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine 185 .

4.2.5    The E4 Group

The E4 Group entails cooperation between four organisations: the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), the European Students’ Union (ESU), the European University Association (EUA) and the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE)  186 .

The E4 Group developed the key principles of the European Approach and are the founding members of the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR).

4.3Important developments at EU level

In March 2006, the European Parliament and European Council made a recommendation on further European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education 187 , recommending that Member States:

encourage all higher education institutions active within their territory to introduce or develop rigorous internal quality assurance systems, in accordance with the standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area adopted in Bergen in the context of the Bologna Process.

To facilitate information and transparency, quality assurance agencies across Member States would be encouraged to join a ‘European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies’. Higher education institutions in a Member State should be able to ‘choose among quality assurance or accreditation agencies in the European Register an agency which meets their needs and profile, provided that this is compatible with their national legislation or permitted by their national authorities’.

17 years on from the Recommendation, this provision is the only one fully implemented across all 27 EU Member States (and it is the only one that did not require any change in national legislation). Moving to a mainly institutionally based quality assurance system has taken place only in nine EU Member States 188 . In 13 Member States there is a mix of programme and institutional quality assurance 189 , of which two (Hungary and the Netherlands) are planning to move towards institutional approaches.

The use of the European Approach has also been modest ( Figure 4.1 ).

Figure 4.1: Joint programmes that have used the European Approach (2016-2023)

Source: based on data from the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education:  https://www.eqar.eu/kb/joint-programmes/european-approach-cases/

Since 2006 the higher education landscape has significantly changed. A key development was the political commitment of the 27 Member States to building the European Education Area (EEA) 190 by 2025. The idea emerged from the November 2017 Social Summit of EU leaders in Gothenburg (Sweden). A Communication from the European Commission on Strengthening European Identity through Education and Culture 191  proposed a vision to develop a joined-up education space for the EU with a focus on investing in young people with new skills and competencies, modernising and improving education systems, excellent teaching and teachers, and a new agenda for higher education.

Following on the European Council’s call of December 2017 192 to encourage the emergence of European Universities’, the first call of the European Universities Initiative was launched in 2018 to create European Universities alliances – inter-university campuses that pool their expertise, platforms, and resources to develop and deliver joint curricula and flexible learning pathways for students. To date, 50 European Universities alliances have been funded involving more than 430 higher education institutions 193 and leading to the creation of almost 160 joint programmes 194 .

The European strategy for universities calls for 60 European Universities, involving 500 higher education institutions, by mid-2024. The alliances have taken transnational cooperation in developing joint programmes to a new level. Their activities go beyond the prevailing joint masters programmes to date (typified by Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters programmes 195 ), towards bachelor offers, blended joint programmes, programmes involving microcredits, programmes involving business, and more sophisticated mobilities for students and staff. This has encouraged the use of the European Approach, reflected in more joint programmes relying on it since the launch of the European Universities Initiative.

The November 2018 Council Recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition of higher education and upper secondary education and training qualifications and the outcomes of learning periods abroad 196 aimed to improve and facilitate procedures for automatic mutual recognition in the EU, linking it to quality assurance, which has a key role to play in improving transparency, thus helping to build mutual trust.

It recommended that Member States ‘ensure the full implementation of the Bologna Process instruments for higher education in the Union’ and encouraged them to carry out external quality assurance through independent agencies that are registered on the European Quality Assurance Register. Member States were asked to develop national guidance to support higher education institutions in producing and effectively implementing transparent criteria for recognition that are applied throughout each higher education institution.

In May 2021 the Council Conclusions on the European Universities initiative – Bridging higher education, research, innovation and society: Paving the way for a new dimension in European higher education 197 emphasised that European Universities alliances could be pivotal in achieving a seamless balanced mobility of students, mobility of teachers, staff and brain circulation. The European Council suggested that the alliances could be developed as ‘testbeds’ for the interoperability of higher education institutions in delivering brain circulation and the free flow of knowledge. The alliances should be encouraged to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, such as, for example, HEInnovate 198 and InvestEU 199 , and promote collaboration with Horizon Europe 200 , to provide synergies and avoid duplication of efforts.

The January 2022 Commission Communication on a European strategy for universities 201 had a specific focus to better link research, teaching and learning, inviting closer cooperation between countries and actors of the higher education sector within the European Education Area, the European Research Area and the European Higher Education Area (Bologna process).

Such integration requires stronger transnational cooperation in higher education institutional transformation and ‘support for fundamental academic values and scientific freedom, developing academic careers, innovative and interdisciplinary learning, teaching and research, as well as the interconnectedness between these, knowledge circulation, international cooperation with partners beyond the EU and the contribution to the United Nation’s SDG’s’. To support such developments the European Commission committed to establishing a Higher Education Sector Observatory,

The 5 April 2022 Council Recommendation on Building Bridges for Effective European Higher Education Cooperation 202 instrumentalises the European strategy for universities. Article 7 of the Recommendation has re-emphasised the value of quality assurance in higher education, particularly as there has been increased mobility across countries and more collaboration in teaching and learning.

Article 7 The goal is to strengthen mutual trust through external quality assurance and accreditation of joint educational offers.

Member States are encouraged to:

·Move further towards the use of institutional-based external quality assurance to support the development of a genuine institutional quality culture that leads to a greater accountability and compatibility of systems across Europe.

·Consider the possibility of allowing for self-accreditation of programmes based on institutional quality assurance, to underpin the self-responsibility of higher education institutions.

·Where countries rely on programme-based external quality assurance, enable the full implementation of the European Approach, ensuring that the external evaluation of joint transnational programmes is carried out by one single agency registered in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education and that the outcomes are automatically accepted in all other higher education systems without adding further national requirements.

‘Regarding the development of a European Quality Assurance and Recognition System, Stockholm University would like to emphasise the importance of the higher education institutions own responsibility for quality assurance. Therefore, we value the possibility to allow for self-accreditation of programmes based on the institutions quality assurance procedures’.

Stockholm University (Sweden) – Call for Evidence.

The 6 April 2022 Council conclusions on a European strategy empowering higher education institutions for the future of Europe 203 focus on higher education institutions simplifying administrative procedures to widen the mutual recognition of academic qualifications and to ‘unlock’ the full potential of the European Universities alliances. The Conclusions emphasise the importance of implementing the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes, in recognising the value of transnational cooperation in teaching and learning, and enhancing the employability of learners.

The Conclusions invite Member States and the European Commission to explore common criteria for a potential European label for joint programmes, and to facilitate a European quality assurance approach for joint programmes in line with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area.

In May 2023, and responding to the European Commission report (above) on the implementation of automatic recognition, the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union called for further action in its Council conclusions on further steps to make automatic mutual recognition in education and training a reality 204 .

The Conclusions strongly emphasise that ‘Quality assurance plays a key role in accelerating trust building by highlighting methods and improving transparency’, but note that there has been uneven application of automatic recognition tools, in the use of the Diploma Supplement, and in recognising learning periods abroad. This is even though ‘within the Erasmus+ programme, higher education institutions have committed to fully and automatically recognising the credits obtained during a mobility period, recognition is still far from being the norm’.

These developments at the EU level, particularly the European Universities Initiative, have given new momentum to the Bologna Process. The use of the European Approach, for instance, has increased overall –albeit moderately– since the launch of the first call for European Universities alliances in 2018. The European Universities alliances have also been exploring how they can implement the European Approach. For example:

The Circle-U alliance has published Quality assurance guidelines and rules to develop joint learning activities and programmes 205 . Inspired by the European Approach it explicitly addresses teaching activities that are not yet implemented in the institutions (joint programmes and courses, blended learning and of course in the context of academic chairs, and also for micro-credentials.

The Una Europa alliance (at the 2021 European University Association Quality Assurance Forum) presented a trust-based approach to joint programme quality assurance, emphasising the importance of subsidiarity for partners, and agreeing core quality practices. Transparency is essential in this process, and the partners share information on their internal quality assurance methods in a knowledge base 206 .

Furthermore, the Erasmus+ EuniQ 207 project has made recommendations 208 on the development of a quality assurance framework for European Universities alliances and a roadmap for its implementation. The proposed framework adjusts some criteria of the European Approach to cope with the complexities of European Universities alliances and is meant to be flexible to cope with future developments.

According to the proposed framework, European Universities alliances should be able to choose one, two or more agencies registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) for the coordination of the quality assurance evaluation, which should:

·Respect the internal quality assurance arrangements, diversity, academic freedom and autonomy of the alliances and their constituent higher education institutions.

·Respect the mission and strategy determined by the alliances, focusing on their implementation and not on the choices they made.

·Focus on the joint provision of the alliance and not assess the individual institutions, their programmes or courses.

4.4Challenges to quality assurance 

4.4.1    Uneven implementation of the ESG

Despite the progress made in the past two decades, there is still uneven implementation of the ESG recommendations, while, at EU level, implementation of the quality assurance provisions of the 2022 Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation is at an early stage.

The 2018 Bologna Progress Report on Quality Assurance 209 highlighted the advantages of an institutional approach to external quality assurance. It gives higher education institutions more autonomy to develop their own internal procedures (fine-tuned to their particular needs), which contribute to creating a quality culture when they are applied across the institution. It also encourages higher education institutions to create specialised central quality units that can take on the administrative load from academic teaching and research staff, and can also provide support and training to them. Furthermore, the workload of quality assurance agencies is reduced, as they review institutions rather than a large number of programmes.

In spite of the clear advantages of institutional quality assurance, more motivation and support are needed for it to be adopted and further stimulate transnational cooperation. Positive examples of a move from programme to institutional quality assurance include:

·In Latvia, an Erasmus+ project has created a roadmap for the institutional accreditation of higher education institutions by 2024 210 .

·The Netherlands is planning a move from programme level to a form of institutional level accreditation (new programmes will be centrally accredited while institutions would handle reaccreditation) by 2024 211 .

All EU countries, except Czechia, Italy, Malta, and Slovakia, have implemented the ESG fully at system level 212 . A 2021 review 213 of quality assurance frameworks of the 49 European Higher Education Area (EHEA) countries for the European University Association concluded that the ESG and the European Approach brought a common understanding to a diverse set of external quality assurance activities at country and regional levels. For example, quality assurance can involve external review of a joint programme, it can involve self-accreditation, and can be at the institutional level. The validity of accreditation ranges mostly from 5 to 8 years, with some only for 1 to 3 years 214 .

Positive developments include:

·Austria in 2021 promoted the use of the European Approach to accredit and evaluate joint programmes through the establishment of a peer learning network 215 involving other European agencies, and by widening institutional accreditation to involve University of Applied Sciences through the Fachhochschul-Akkreditierungsverordnung decree.

·Romanian universities can now offer joint programmes with other higher education institutions in the European Higher Education Area and upon completion of integrated study programs, the study documents issued, including joint or double degrees, are legally recognized by the Romanian state 216 .

·The Hungarian Accreditation Committee (MAB) recommended legislative changes to facilitate the quality assurance of the CHARM-EU European Universities alliance 217 .

The Bologna Progress Report on quality assurance in 2018 218 indicated that at that time, of 1 551 higher education institutions in 41 countries surveyed, 71% responded that their compliance with quality assurance laws and regulations was their main focus.

At the country level, a recent study 219 noted that:

·16 EU higher education systems used quality assurance to enhance practice: Belgium (Flemish Community), Belgium (French Community), Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Malta, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden. 

·Some countries were reported to have achieved full implementation of all the recommendations (Belgium, Latvia, Austria, Romania, and Finland), with Luxembourg and Hungary also being rated positively in all the recommendations for which data were available for those countries.

·All but four Member States have internal and external quality assurance systems that are aligned with the ESG, evidenced by the registration within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education of the agencies performing external quality assurance.

·Lower degrees of implementation were reported in relation to higher education institutions being able to choose quality assurance agencies (registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education) from other Member States, the promotion of cooperation between agencies, independence of assessments and in ensuring public access to the assessments performed by quality assurance agencies listed in the register.

·There has tended to be greater progress in relation to recommendations that do not explicitly require international cooperation than in relation to those that refer more directly to this type of cooperation. Implementation of the recommendation on higher education institutions being able to choose among quality assurance or accreditation agencies in the European register has been limited.

4.4.2    Uneven Implementation of the European Approach

The European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) reports that the extent to which the European Approach has been implemented across higher education systems in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) varies substantially (EU Member States are highlighted in bold)  220 :

·European Approach available to all higher education institutions: Belgium (Flemish Community), Belgium (French Community), United Kingdom (Wales), Denmark, United Kingdom (England), Spain, Croatia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, United Kingdom (Northern Ireland), Poland, Romania, Switzerland, United Kingdom (Scotland), Finland, Austria, Armenia.

·European Approach available to some higher education institutions or only under specific conditions: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Cyprus, France, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Georgia.

·European Approach not available to higher education institutions: Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Czechia, Montenegro, Italy, Iceland, Latvia, North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, Holy See.

Such differences, where only 11 of the 27 Member States allow the full implementation of the European Approach, need to be overcome to achieve the aim that all joint programmes are assessed through a single European procedure.

‘Despite the European Approach there is no common course of action concerning the accreditation of joint study programmes in the EHEA. The European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes was adopted in 2015, yet not all EHEA member states are ready for its thorough application. The national legislations still do not allow in every member state the use of a Joint Degree’. 

St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences (Germany) – Call for Evidence.

Achieving full implementation of the European Approach can depend on the administrative procedures concerning joint programmes. In Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, and Romania they are defined in law. In Italy, the law does not allow joint programmes. Some Member States will only attest to the programme parts delivered by their own higher education institution (as in Poland), whereas, in Cyprus and Portugal, a full programme can be reviewed. Slovenia has a separate national framework for joint programmes where a foreign partner is not accredited by an agency registered within the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).

The European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education reports that 28 joint programmes have undergone a formal review using the European Approach to date 221 . Among them, there are three first-cycle programmes, a positive development because unlike the second-cycle Masters and doctoral levels there has been very limited European funding to build joint bachelor programmes, whereas for masters and doctoral levels funding has been available through Erasmus+ (particularly Erasmus Mundus and capacity building projects) and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions.

While the total number is modest, the range of countries involved indicates that the European Approach has potential applicability in higher education across the world. The countries using the European Approach to date (number of institutions involved – as of January 2024) are:

Albania (1); Austria (5); Belgium (Flemish Community) (3); Belgium (French Community) (2); Bosnia and Herzegovina (1); Croatia (2); Czech Republic (2); Denmark (2); Estonia (1); Finland (2); France (14); Germany (12); Greece (1); Hungary (1); Ireland (2); Israel (1); Italy (5); Kosovo (1); Lithuania (1); Malta (1); Netherlands (8); North Macedonia (1); Norway (4); Poland (3); Portugal (3); Romania (2); Slovakia (1); Slovenia (2); South Africa (1); Spain (14); Sudan (1); Sweden (3); Uganda (1); United Kingdom (England) (1); United States (1).

Even though the European Approach has not been extensively used, a July 2023 report 222 from the Erasmus+-funded ‘Quality Assurance Fit for the Future’ (QA-FIT 223 ) project indicated that joint programmes are actually widely developed, with 60% of the respondents stating that their higher education institution offered them, with larger institutions offering more than 30 joint programmes. Respondents, which represented higher education institutions in the European Higher Education Area, also advised against any further quality assurance developments adding to their workload, and that the processes should not cover governance or strategic management aspects.

Those who are considering developing a joint programme involving partners from multiple countries and institutions need to consider whether to apply for accreditation through the European Approach. Should some of the partners then develop another programme they would need to go through the European Approach process again (programme-level quality assurance). This can be a disincentive. It would be more efficient if the partner institutions were accredited through the European Approach (institutional-level quality assurance) because the quality assurance administrative overhead for a new joint programme would be nearly zero.

The ‘full accreditation’ as in the European Approach is viewed as a competitive advantage – in effect a label of approval at the European level for six years and can be used in programme promotion and publicity. The ability of a process to adapt to the specific disciplinary sectors being evaluated we regarded as being important, and a single evaluation (self-assessment and visit) involving all partner institutions across countries can result in a deeper understanding of issues such as diversity, inclusion, pedagogies, innovative teaching and learning, widening participation, and assessment.

A study investigated the experience of cross-border quality assurance for the accreditation of engineering education in Belgium (with a partnership of French and Belgian agencies). An initial challenge was that the French agency was not familiar with the Belgian approach and as a result, its accreditation standards were reformulated to pay more attention to ‘what’ (the outcomes) than to ‘how’ (the specific strategies and practices) 224 . This resonates with the recommendations for quality assurance coming from the European Universities alliances. It was found to be important that an agency not familiar with the other country systems should avoid making comparisons or recommendations based on their own national approach.

In September 2023, as part of QA-FIT, the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education reported 225 the results of a survey of ministries, higher education institutions, quality assurance agencies and students. Respondents were positive about the role that quality assurance has played in building trust and transparency across countries at the European Higher Education Area level, whereas students reported positive impacts for their careers. Importantly, the survey showed how joint programmes at the European level have a positive social dimension by building on European values.

However, there was less positivity about the European Approach to the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes. Most responses indicated that the European Approach was not permitted in their national frameworks, but there was a clear majority of responses that accepted the relevance of the European Approach being applicable for the European Universities alliances joint programmes.

Stakeholder interviews and other research for the ICF study reported some of the obstacles for achieving full implementation. For some, a change to national legislation is required to overcome differences in methodologies, language, timelines, and application deadlines. For others, the main deterrent is the cost (particularly in terms of human resources required) of moving to full implementation. In some cases, the European Approach is not sufficiently well-known across higher education systems such as in Belgium’s French-speaking community (although in Belgium’s Flemish community the European Approach is mandatory for all new joint programmes).

The complexity of current [quality assurance] rules and guidelines can be a barrier to effective implementation and compliance. Simplifying these rules would not only make them more accessible to [higher education institutions] but also streamline the [quality assurance] processes, making them more efficient and less burdensome for institutions.

European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE) – Call for Evidence.

The 2018 Progress Report had noted that about one-third of the higher education institutions responding to a survey were not aware of the European Approach; where they were aware, they often confused the European Approach and the ESG. A further problem, reported by the QA-FIT project, is that information about the European Approach may not be available in the local language 226 . It is to be expected that this confusion is reducing through significant events such as the annual Quality Assurance Forum held by the European University Association 227 .

To widen the awareness of the European Approach, guides have been produced for different stakeholder groups.

The ImpEA project 228 provides a training toolkit covering the principles and practice of the European Approach.

AQU Catalunya 229 published its own guide for higher education institutions and its own officials in implementing the European Approach.

The Dutch National Agencies Erasmus+ 230 coordinated a project leading to the publication in 2020 of Joint Programmes from A to Z: A reference guide for practitioners 231 . This takes readers through a full journey from considering participating in a joint programme to resourcing, delivering and sustaining it, with overall messages encouraging them to check the provisions and definitions of the European Approach.

The E4 Group and the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education published a guide for stakeholders engaging in ‘cross-border’ quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area 232 . The document includes a roadmap in the form of guiding questions that stakeholders should consider before, during, and after the quality assurance procedure. It encourages institutions to consider first the rationale for engaging in cross-border quality assurance and what added value would result. It makes a strong recommendation that the European Approach should be used for joint programmes.

4.4.3    Need for better links between quality assurance and recognition 

Robust quality assurance leads to accountability, transparency, improvement, and trust in the higher education sector – essential elements for the automatic mutual recognition of higher education qualifications between EU Member States.

However, recognition procedures vary significantly between EU Member States, types of higher education institutions, and education levels 233 , and are often complicated, lengthy, and expensive. This creates frictions for students to move and make use of their higher education qualifications in the European Union, and for higher education institutions to engage in deeper transnational cooperation.

ESU sees automatic recognition as a pillar for free movement of persons and an enabler for credit or degree mobility, and as such supports the objectives of mobility, such as internationalisation and intercultural understanding.

European Students’ Union (ESU) – Call for Evidence.

The only legally binding text in the recognition area is the 1997 Council of Europe/UNESCO Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region (Lisbon Recognition Convention) 234 . Signed by 55 countries, it aims to ensure that qualifications are recognised in other countries and that the process of recognition is not burdensome and is fairly assessed in a reasonable time. The Convention argues that recognition should take place by default and can only be refused if the qualification is substantially different from that of the host country, and where clear evidence is provided that this is the case. The Bologna Process monitors progress in this area.

There are no legally binding commitments at the EU level. In line with the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (§ 165 TFEU), the European Union shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action. Consistent with this, academic recognition of foreign qualifications is the exclusive responsibility of EU Member States.

Despite EU efforts to encourage automatic mutual recognition (see the Important developments at EU level section), a recent study showed the uneven application of automatic mutual recognition recommendations (see Figure 4.2) 235 .

Figure 4.2: Automatic recognition of higher education qualifications in EU Member States

Source: European Commission, Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, Implementation of the 2018 Council Recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition of higher education and upper secondary education and training qualifications and the outcomes of learning periods abroad, Publications Office of the European Union, 2023,  https://education.ec.europa.eu/sites/default/files/2023-03/Evaluation%20Report%20-%20Implementation%20of%20the%202018%20CR%20on%20promoting%20automatic%20mutual%20recognition.pdf

Furthermore, the February 2023 Report from the European Commission to the European Council 236 showed that rather than recognition being automatic, one-third of higher education institutions checked the quality assurance arrangements of the sending institution when deciding on recognition. The report also showed a need for stronger guidance and clarity about implementing automatic recognition.

4.4.4    Remaining Obstacles to European-level quality assurance 

There remain a wide range of barriers to the wider adoption of European quality assurance tools. Implementation of the quality assurance provisions of the Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation is at an early stage. Explicit references to the inclusion of ECTS and micro-credentials in quality assurance or the quality assurance of micro-credentials also remain limited to a minority of systems.

A recent study 237 identified that joint programmes often need to: undergo multiple accreditation and re-accreditation procedures; navigate differing online teaching programme requirements; deal with different accreditation durations; and determine whether institutional, programme, or self-accreditation is to be used. The study cited early (2022) qualitative feedback from the European Universities alliances that even where the European Approach is available, it is not always evenly applied. Lastly, the differences between national higher education systems themselves were making it difficult to build trust that all joint programme institutions have the same level of quality, even where institutional quality assurance is applied.

‘The initiative to establish a European Quality Assurance and Recognition System represents a pivotal step towards enhancing the coherence, trust, and transparency of higher education across the European Union’.

YouthProAktiv (Non-governmental organisation) – Call for Evidence.

The ICF study 238 cited throughout this chapter further emphasised the prevailing barriers, noting that some national legislations remain restrictive, and that the cost-benefits of the European Approach are not widely appreciated. Coordinating resources, scheduling the quality assurance process, and sharing resources for the quality assurance process, can be difficult across countries.

Some quality assurance systems may require reports from other country agencies to be checked, there may be uneven resources available (some agencies may be subsidised, others not, to undertake quality assurance. There can be a ‘fear of failure’ where ‘an assessment that is not complementary may raise questions for students about the value of their qualification in the country of study’. Finally, different languages in the documentation of the different national systems can require translation and add to administrative burden.

Besides the challenge in securing compliance with the ESG, and significantly increasing the use of the European Approach, EU-wide quality assurance processes also need to ‘move with the times’ and reflect the changing social, political, environmental and economic landscape, for example: the green and digital transition, employability, gender balance, academic integrity and fundamental academic and European values, synergies between education, research, innovation and service to society, and programmes (leading to full degree or micro-credentials) enhancing skills and competencies of students and lifelong learners on key societal priorities.

‘We strongly support the Standards and Guidelines for quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) as a framework that fosters trust between higher education systems and a foundation to gain automatic recognition throughout Europe. Nonetheless, the quality assurance system should be flexible enough to allow for a quick response to changes’.

Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research (BMBWF), Directorate for Higher Education – Call for Evidence

Higher education systems may address these aspects in different ways, for example by incorporating specific objectives in their regular external quality assurance or through focused or thematic quality reviews at system level. Such an approach should be carried out in full alignment with the ESG.

Chapter 5: European framework for flexible and attractive academic careers

Effective and innovative transnational cooperation in higher education requires the commitment of high-quality academic staff who can engage in deep long-term partnerships with peers from other institutions. Their efforts must therefore be appropriately rewarded and valued in their career advancement. This chapter explores the importance of ensuring that academic careers in European higher education are attractive, flexible, and sustainable across the European Union, ensuring parity of esteem between the different roles that academic staff play in their institutions – from research and teaching and learning to engagement in knowledge transfer, leadership, open science practices, civil society, and transnational cooperation.

The content of this chapter relies on desk research and the outcomes of a study commissioned to Ecorys in the preparation of this higher education package 239 . The study included an extensive literature review; five online consultation events with higher education stakeholders 240 ; an online survey to gather input on the challenges and the current situation in higher education institutions 241 ; and focus groups to discuss the results from the previous activities 242 .

The chapter first sets the stage by exploring the different types of higher education institutions that exist in Europe, each with a different structure, priorities and practices that influence the career paths of their academic staff. It then frames the main challenges that influence the careers of academic staff, ranging across transnational cooperation, teaching and learning, career developments and working conditions, and academic freedom, diversity, and gender equality. The last section summarises the key findings and advances possible solutions.

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5.1.Background

To achieve flexible and attractive academic careers in higher education across the European Union, and thereby contribute to achieving the European Education Area 243 by 2025, the January 2022 Commission Communication on a European strategy for universities 244 , identified career-related barriers to the development of deep transnational cooperation in teaching and learning. They include the lack of parity of esteem between different academic career paths, the rigidity of academic careers, and the working conditions of academic staff.

To tackle these challenges, the European Commission committed to actions in close cooperation with stakeholders and Member States, including the development of a European framework for attractive and sustainable careers in higher education in synergy with the research career framework developed under the European Research Area (ERA): to provide better support for innovative teaching and learning approaches through training and career development for higher education academic staff; and to strengthen, promote and protect university autonomy and academic freedom.

The Council Recommendation on Building Bridges for Effective European Higher Education Cooperation, published in April 2022, encouraged Member States to support higher education institutions in valorising and recognising in their career assessments the time spent by academic staff on developing innovative pedagogies and new research practices through transnational cooperation.

In its May 2021 Conclusions on Deepening the European Research Area: Providing researchers with attractive and sustainable careers and working conditions and making brain circulation a reality 245 , the Council had already called on the European Commission to design a framework for seamless and ambitious transnational cooperation between European higher education institutions for both academic and research careers. The Conclusions acknowledged that academic career development and progression in higher education was dominantly focused on research, rather than providing a balanced career path.

Notably, it was highlighted that to diversify research careers, there is a need to explore more diverse reward and assessment mechanisms that take into account not only research outputs, but also open collaboration, societal engagement, teaching and skills, impact, services to society, open science practices, mobility, management and leadership skills, entrepreneurship, and collaboration with industry.

Building on this, the Council Recommendation of 18 December 2023 on a European framework to attract and retain research, innovation and entrepreneurial talents in Europe proposed concrete steps to make research careers in Europe more attractive and sustainable 246 . The Recommendation acknowledges the need to have a common understanding of ‘researcher’ at Union level and of the activities they perform in different sectors; to safeguard academic freedom and freedom of research; to address persisting gender inequalities; to support early-career researchers, attractive working conditions, and stable contracts; to have transparent, merit-based recruitment and promotions systems; to ensure adequate social protection for researchers; to encourage researchers’ mobility and training so they can have better career opportunities; and to establish performance evaluations that recognise diverse research outputs, activities, and practices with an equal esteem and reward of the different career paths.

Notably, the Recommendation introduces a new European Charter for Researchers. The Charter consists of a set of principles underpinning the development of attractive research careers across Europe. The Charter details the rights and responsibilities of researchers, employers, funders, and policymakers across four pillars: ‘Ethics, Integrity, Gender and Open Science’; ‘Researchers Assessment, Recruitment and Progression’; ‘Working Conditions and Practices’; and ‘Research Careers and Talent Development’.

As will be explained below, the needs identified for research careers resonate with those for other academic career paths. However, a key factor that impedes the development of wider career paths for academic staff is the primacy of research over other academic roles that permeate the higher education sector. It is thus essential to ensure synergies between the proposal for a European framework for academic careers and the recently adopted European framework to attract and retain research, innovation and entrepreneurial talents in Europe.

5.2.The diversity of European higher education

The framework for academic careers needs to be sensitive to the diversity of European higher education, which involves much more than ‘universities’; furthermore, not all higher education institutions undertake research, and not all undertake teaching and learning 247 :

Europe is home to close to 5 000 higher education institutions, 17.5 million tertiary education students, 1.35 million people teaching in tertiary education and 1.17 million researchers. Be it research universities, institutes of technology, schools of arts or higher vocational education and training institutions – the different types of higher education institutions are all hallmarks of our European way of life 248 .

The Eurydice network 249 notes that there is a wide range of higher education institutions in Europe such as public and private higher education institutions, traditional universities, universities of applied sciences, university colleges, business schools, specialised higher schools, polytechnics, non-university level public institutions of higher education, tertiary professional schools, and specialised research universities. Across this diversity of institutions, some are more research-focused, some are more focused on applied sciences, some may be focused on specific thematic areas such as agriculture, law or cultural services, and others can be more focused on teaching and learning.

The importance of fully recognising the role of teaching and learning has grown as technology advancements have provided means to empower both students and teachers to undertake innovative and independent teaching and learning learning through through the use of online resources, research engines, and more recently, advanced digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Extended Reality. Innovative transnational teaching and learning is the hallmark of forward-looking educational approaches, reflected in European Universities alliances 250 , the teaching programmes of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) 251 , and the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master programmes 252 . The use of advanced digital technologies in teaching and learning helps equip both students and teachers with digital skills, supporting the closing of the digital skills gap in Europe and reaching the Digital Decade targets of 80% of adults with at least basic digital skills and 20 million ICT specialists in Europe, with more gender convergence, by 2030 253 .

‘In order for Europe to be able to compete for skilled labour and innovations in the future, it is important that universities and other [higher education] institutions are attractive workplaces for research and education professionals’.

Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ) – Call for Evidence.

In short, teaching and learning are being rapidly disrupted by new technologies, pedagogies, methodologies and tools. At the same time, it is increasingly expected that higher education teaching and learning will produce graduates with the competencies and skills needed by society and the economy, with developments such as graduate tracking initiatives providing a robust understanding of the career trajectories of former students 254 .

All such activities underline not just the importance of teaching and learning, but also the need for academics to be able to move between teaching, research, business, and transnational activities so that they acquire the skills and competencies to deliver what students require to thrive in a fast-changing world. There is a need for diverse academic career pathways to be effectively recognised and rewarded.

Higher education workload is often divided into research, teaching, and administration. However, assessment systems usually have a quantitative approach focused on publications, rather than a qualitative one focusing on the variety of activities performed 255 .. Furthermore, the global influence of research metrics such as the QS World Rankings 256 reinforces a focus on research among higher education institutions, particularly as there is a very public race to be perceived as one of the world’s top universities and ranking high in research can attract high calibre research staff, and funding. In this respect, the Council Recommendation of 18 December 2023 on a European framework to attract and retain research, innovation and entrepreneurial talents in Europe recommends assessment and reward systems that recognise a diversity of outputs, activities and practices. This includes among others teaching, academia-industry cooperation, and interaction with society.

It can also be noted that while research leave (sabbatical) can relieve academics of teaching and learning and administration so they can focus exclusively on research,there is not always an equivalent teaching and learning leave, where an academic is relieved of research and administration. Moreover, while it is possible to combine a higher education career with external mobility (such as transnational cooperation or industry secondments), it can be difficult to return to pure research after another activity. Also in this respect, the new framework for research careers recommends Member States to address such issues.

Some issues relate both to teaching and learning and research in areas such as gender balance, the inclusiveness of recruitment practices, types of contracts (particularly the use of short-term contracts and precarious employment situations), academic freedom and institutional autonomy, the ways in which higher education is financed, and the ways in which higher education institutions are ‘structured’.

The European University Association argues that the vision for Europes universities calls for a fundamental reform of academic careers 257 . This requires achieving parity between different career paths and between research and teaching; incentives for activities with different forms of impact, such as innovation and mentoring; ensuring less precarious and more attractive career conditions to retain talent; and more flexibility in academic careers to switch to other sectors and from other sectors to academia 258 .

The Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN) emphasises that making careers in academia more attractive and sustainable requires a three-step approach 259 : valuing the diverse contributions of academic staff by developing national-level approaches that encourage more comprehensive recognition systems and diverse career paths; creating support systems for the continuous skills development of academic staff (e.g., through an EU-level funding programme targeting educational excellence); and empowering universities through sustainable and diversified funding, strengthening their institutional autonomy and allowing them to channel resources according to their needs, invest in skills, and build career paths between academia and other sectors.

Academic careers therefore need to be ‘attractive’, allowing higher education institutions to attract and retain the best global talent and avoid a brain drain to other sectors or geographies; ‘flexible’, enabling mobility between teaching, administration, business development, research, and other areas; and ‘sustainable’, by offering staff clear mid- and long-term options to grow and develop their careers.

5.3Challenges and factors influencing academic careers

The literature on academic careers is strongly biased towards research careers and little is written about the need to treat all academic activities equitably. Nevertheless, there are important similarities in the barriers and challenges facing researchers and those in teaching and learning.

Institutional structures are closely tied to management approaches and quality assurance processes, and the traditional model of higher education governance 260 is being challenged by the demands of competitiveness over many scales and around an expanding range of economic and social factors 261 .

Furthermore, the nature of managerialism in higher education can cause quality assurance to lose its meaning and become a ritual for compliance only 262 . For example, the evaluation of quality in determining higher education rankings (which predominantly focus on research) does not always provide a realistic picture across all elements of higher education activities. What is measured largely determines the outcomes 263 . For instance, Bielefeld University improved from position 250 to 166 in one year in the Times Higher Education rankings. However, analysis showed that most of the improvement was due to the participation of a single scholar in a well-cited global health study (with over a hundred co-authors) 264 .

In its ‘Universities without walls – A vision for 2030’, the European University Association (EUA) calls for a broader set of evaluation practices (beyond traditional bibliometric indicators) 265 to evaluate the wide range of activities in higher education. For example, Slovenia emphasises the importance of gender equality in academic (research) careers, gender balance in decision-making, and the integration of the gender dimension in research and innovation content 266 .

Austria has been implementing a broad reform agenda to provide strategic funding, diversify higher education institutions, and promote an allocation of students that improves the quality of interdisciplinary curricula or trans-disciplinary research platforms 267 . The Springboard initiative in Ireland 268 helps expand higher education teaching and learning to provide new skills to both unemployed and employed people.

Types of academic staff and career structures are highly heterogeneous and varied across countries 269 . Differences exist in activities (teaching, research), contract status (indefinite, fixed term), and career pathways. National strategies set out policy frameworks supported by specific measures on issues such as gender distribution, allocation of indefinite/temporary contracts, mobility, careers, and training.

Furthermore, there is an emphasis on early-stage researchers (post-doctoral levels specifically) for whom teaching is a minor activity. There are differences in remuneration packages (salaries, social security, pension) in career pathways in terms of interdisciplinary, intersectoral, and international mobility. The age structure of some higher education systems also limits the number of new appointments, reducing the regular inflow of new staff with new knowledge, skills and competencies, and also blocking the promotion of younger academic staff. In some countries, the share of older academic staff (aged 50 and over) in 2017 was above 40% (Spain 43.3%, Italy 44.6%, Greece 48.9%, Finland 48.9%, Slovenia 51.7%) 270 .

There are differences in legal definitions of the academic profession. The quality of higher education is evaluated differently across countries by external bodies 271 . Evaluations typically consider topics such as teaching, research and training opportunities. On the other hand, human resource management (recruitment, performance appraisal, promotion) is often overlooked (although data are collected on employment, contractual arrangements, and salaries).

The European University Association notes the need to raise awareness on the precarity of academic careers in Europe and the need to recognise academics for the full range of their activities, including teaching; innovation with business, the public sector and civil society; and engagement in open science practices 272 . 

The COVID-19 pandemic had a particular impact on accelerating the development of online and blended teaching and learning. In its review of the impact of COVID-19, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted that female academics were more affected than males, for example in having their work-life balance deteriorate (74% vs. 63%). In terms of mobility, 12 out of the 27 jurisdictions answering the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey suspended or cancelled international mobility programmes for students or academic staff. As digital technology becomes further integrated into higher education, academic contracts may need to be revised to welcome new workload models, more training and professional development, and new career assessment mechanisms 273 .

Approaches to supporting the development of academic careers will likely need to address multiple stakeholder perspectives: employers who value quality of education and competencies and skills; institutional leaders that drive and value organisational modernisation; staff who value continuous professional development and reference points for practice; government that provides the appropriate framework for higher education institutions to flourish; students who value teaching and learning is up to date 274 .

Overall, the literature review identified a range of factors influencing academic careers:

·Human Resource Policies: recruitment processes, contract conditions, and remuneration.

·Appraisal and promotion systems and reward mechanisms.

·Flexible career development paths.

·Achieving a gender balance.

·The importance of teaching and learning as well as research (parity of esteem).

·Academic freedom.

·Workload pressures.

·Inclusion and equity.

·Financing models in higher education.

·Institutional structures.

·Lack of data and resources on academic careers.

The influence of these factors was further explored with higher education stakeholders through an online survey and focus groups conducted by Ecorys, which yielded additional data and insights.

Figure 5.1 reflects the importance that respondents attach to different factors for their academic careers. There is a clear view from respondents that fair and attractive contract conditions need the most attention, followed by adequate long-term resourcing for staff and the minimisation of precarious and short-term contracts.

Other aspects in the list (academic freedom, inclusivity, flexible career pathways, community engagement) are not to be regarded as being unimportant, but rather that there are clear areas for EU action to be considered. There was, however, a lower prioritisation of equally valuing research and teaching and learning, which could indicate that research has become culturally prioritised throughout higher education.

Figure 5.1: Opinions on the importance of different factors for academic careers

Respondents rated each aspect on a 1-8 scale, with 1 being the most and 8 the least important.

Source: Ecorys, based on research carried out in 2023 to assess the current situation regarding academic staff in higher education in Europe.

The subsections below explore in more detail the influences that the identified factors have on different aspects of academic careers, grouped into four thematic areas: transnational cooperation; innovative and effective teaching; working conditions; and the respect for academic freedom, diversity, and gender equality.

5.3.1Engagement in deep transnational cooperation 

Developing joint programmes and engaging in deep transnational cooperation such as European alliances of higher education institutions requires specific skills and a high level of commitment from academic staff. Member States have acknowledged transnational cooperation as a key dimension of higher education to support Union values, strengthen the resilience of European society and economy, and build a sustainable future 275 . Nonetheless, there is a clear perception among higher education stakeholders that the time and energy that academic staff and other staff devote to developing and strengthening transnational cooperation are not properly valorised and recognised in their careers.

The effort put into creating joint programs and degrees is still not valued or recognized for career and promotion purposes. Participation in these initiatives is essential for complementing promotion and career development, particularly with regard to research.

Universidade Lusófona (Portugal) – Call for Evidence.

A survey conducted in 2020 by the European University Association 276 revealed that 96% of responding higher education institutions identify internationalisation as part of their institutional strategy 277 , with the top priority being enhancing the quality of learning and teaching, followed by attracting students from abroad, and developing strategic partnerships with selected higher education institutions abroad.

Moreover, 87% of respondents had participated or had plans to participate in the European Universities Initiative – one of the deepest forms of transnational cooperation in higher education – with only 13% stating that their institution had no plans to participate. However, challenges to participation were identified, notably the amount of extra work on top of usual business (80% of respondents), and getting and sustaining commitment of academic staff (72%). Among those institutions that did not take part in the initiative, the lack of resources was among the main reasons for not participating 278 .

The research conducted by Ecorys in preparation for this proposal painted a similar picture: two-thirds (65.5%) of respondents agree that transnational cooperation in teaching and learning is part of the higher education institutional strategy (Figure 5.2) and that career pathways for academic staff effectively enable, support, and encourage engagement in transnational cooperation activities.

However, only 40% agree that appraisal, promotion, and rewards mechanisms effectively take into account engagement in transnational cooperation. This highlights the existing disparity between the importance that higher education institutions attach to international cooperation and the institutional mechanisms in place to reward and recognise the academic staff that engages in it.

Figure 5.2: Integration of transnational cooperation into institutional and human resource strategies

Source: Ecorys, based on research carried out in 2023 to assess the current situation regarding academic staff in higher education in Europe.

Furthermore, as shown in Figure 5.3, most surveyed universities (61%) agree that it is essential or very important to have more opportunities for transnational cooperation to develop innovative forms of teaching and learning, whereas most respondents agree that increasing opportunities for transnational cooperation is relevant to promote gender balance, diversity, inclusion, and well-being in academic careers.

Figure 5.3. The importance of having more opportunities for transnational cooperation